Diversion programs offer first-time youth offenders an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system -- sometimes called a pipeline to prison. For a little over a year in New Haven, a diversion program called Project Youth Court has taken shape.
It’s similar to a standard court system, but teens are judged by a group of their peers instead of by adults.
It was after hours at U.S. District Court in New Haven, but there was still work being done.
In a large high-ceilinged federal courtroom with brightly lit wood-paneled walls, a group of 11 students filed into the jury box. Soon they would be hearing testimony from a high school student.
New Haven 11th grader Sierra Welch was one of the jury members. She explained how she sees her role.
"We’re not here to interrogate you," Welch said. "We’re not here to send you to jail. We’re not here to look at you like you are bad -- no. What we are here to do is help you, and let you know that you are not alone."
Welch is part of a group of high school volunteers who have had law-related training that includes restorative justice and deliberation skills.
They act as jurors, clerks, and attorneys, and they try real cases that have been referred by local schools or the New Haven Police Department. The defendants, known as clients, are typically first-time offenders between the ages of 11 and 17 who have committed low-level misdemeanors like fighting in school, shoplifting, or marijuana possession.
One of the main goals of Project Youth Court is to give young offenders a second chance without scarring their record.
Saniah James is an eighth grader from New Haven, and was previously a client.
"I made a stupid mistake, very stupid," she said.
Since all cases and proceedings are strictly confidential, Sinah doesn’t go into detail about her offense. But she freely admitted that she had no idea what to expect from the program.
"I was like, oh gosh, I’m going to jail," she said. "I’m never going to see my grandparents. I’m never gonna see nobody. And then that’s when, like, all of them comforted me, and they were like, ‘Oh we’re here to help you,’ and stuff. So then I got a little bit better. And then when I came after the first time, they were always so nice to me, and they let me speak, and they never judged anybody."
This time, Saniah was there for jury duty. It was part of serving out her sentence, or what the program calls a restorative contract.
She sat among a diverse group of young people who not so long ago judged her case.
Serving on the jury is a mandatory part of every restorative contract, said attorney Amanda Oakes, who’s also a board member of the program.
"The jury duty means you’re gonna come back, and you’re going to be integrated into our group," Oakes said. "You are gonna be helping decide, and give your point of view, about what should happen with another student that you probably identify with, which I think is one of the best parts about youth court -- is this integration."
That integration served Saniah well. She ended up being the jury foreman, which was a big deal and a sought-after position.
The student volunteers, who meet weekly, don’t adjudicate guilt or innocence.
Instead, they hand out what they consider to be reasonable sentences, such as volunteer hours, participation in programs, written apologies, and the required jury duties. It's a big responsibility, said New Haven 12th grader Eryn Ifill.
"This actually can either make or break a kid’s life," Ifill said. "So this isn’t just all about me -- how well I do. It’s about the kid. And just to be more compassionate and just see the other side of the story."
And the other side of the story is often complicated, according to Oakes, who also acts as a coach to the kids, teaching them trial advocacy. She said the cases are never cut and dry.
"There’s a reason that these things are going on, and a lot of the reasons that these students are committing these offenses are because of things that we hear about in our country every day: poverty, housing issues, violence, domestic violence," Oakes said. "It’s very frequent that we have a client whose parent is incarcerated, or whose family has struggled with drug abuse."
Project Youth Court in New Haven is the only one of its kind in Connecticut. But there are over 1,000 youth court programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Association of Youth Courts. All of them are based on a national model with some variations.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Meyer provides his courtroom for the program and sometimes presides over their cases.
"It’s geared principally at helping kids figure out what they need to do next to get themselves on the right track, rather than condemning them for messing up," Meyer said. "When they come to this program, they acknowledge that they did mess up."
The students sitting in Meyer’s courtroom come from different schools, towns, and backgrounds.
Sierra Welch said they’re all there to help others.
"We want to get people out of gangs, off the streets, off the drugs," Welch said. "So I feel like we all come here to help, and that’s especially why I’m here. 'Cause we are really, really young. And what we’re doing is we’re helping youth. We’re helping ourselves."
But the program may have to find another way. Attorney Amanda Oaks said the nonprofit doesn’t have adequate funding to continue.
Project Youth Court has been supported by organizations like the United Way and private donations. The estimated cost to run the program is around $100,000 a year.