Youth courts are juvenile justice diversion programs in which young people are sentenced by their peers. Youth courts are established and administered in a wide variety of ways, but most youth courts are used as a sentencing option for first-time offenders aged 11 to 17 who are charged with misdemeanor nonviolent offenses. In the majority of youth courts, the offender has acknowledged his or her guilt and participates in a youth court voluntarily, rather than going through the more formal, traditional juvenile justice procedures.
Youth courts differ from other juvenile justice programs because they involve other young people in the process, especially in determining the offender's sanction. For example, a peer jury may assign an offender to a combination of community service, conflict resolution training, restitution, jury duty, and/or educational workshops. Depending on the model used, young people may serve as jurors, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, bailiffs, clerks, and even judges. Youth courts are typically run by juvenile probation departments, juvenile courts, law enforcement agencies, schools, private non-profit groups, or community organizations.
Support for youth courts is growing because youth courts:
- serve as a prevention and early intervention program
- hold juvenile offenders accountable for their actions
- provide another option on the continuum of services available to youth
- promote restorative justice principles
- educate youth about the legal system
- offer an opportunity for young people to connect positively with adults and youth from their community, and
- empower youth to be active participants in community problem solving.
Youth courts have rapidly spread across the nation in the past ten years. Currently there are 1,225 active youth court programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
The National Association of Youth Courts serves as a central point of contact for people who wish to establish or further develop youth court programs in their communities. To find out if a there is a youth or peer court in your community, visit the National Association of Youth Court's web site.