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Let’s start with what a crime is. A crime is violation of a criminal law passed by a government. In fact, a crime is passed by the legislative arm of government, which could be the legislature of the state, city or county, or of the federal government. Crimes can be acts, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or car theft, or crimes can be failures to act when the government requires you to act, such as failing to wear a seat belt or bike helmet.


You’ve probably heard of felonies and misdemeanors, but are you sure what they are? Felonies are the more serious crimes, such as murder, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and sexual assault, which can be punished with a year or more of prison. You probably won’t see any young people charged with felonies in your youth court since youth courts in general handle less serious crimes, such as misdemeanors and violations.


Misdemeanors are crimes that can be punished with a year or less of confinement, usually in a local jail or detention facility. Examples of misdemeanors include simple assault, first-time driving while intoxicated, and trespassing. A third category of crimes is called violations, such as minor traffic violations, fishing without a license, parking violations, and littering. They’re punished by fines and not by confinement.


Typically, juveniles who commit crimes and are handled in juvenile court are referred to as delinquents. Their crimes are referred to as delinquent acts and include any acts that would be crimes if committed by an adult under federal, state, or local law.


There is also a special category of crimes that only juveniles can commit. These are referred to as status offenses and include truancy from school, curfew violations, running away from home, and other acts that show the juvenile is beyond the control of his or her parents or guardians. Many times status offenders are teens with emotional or substance abuse problems. They may be living in abusive home environments or under especially difficult circumstances.


As you’ve certainly learned by now, schools also have the authority to establish rules and to set out consequences for violations of those rules. You might review the school handbook that you got at the start of the year. This handbook will list the rules of the school, what happens if you break a school rule, and the process that will occur.


Schools are required to act fairly in disciplining students. Cases have even gone to the U.S. Supreme Court determining what constitutional due process rights students have when faced with suspension or expulsion from school. Due process means that the school must follow fair procedures before suspending or expelling students. Some youth courts are part of the disciplinary process at school. So that rule breakers who admit they have broken a school rule may be given a disposition at school by their peers.



Does your youth court hear?

________ Felonies

________ Misdemeanors

________ Criminal Violations

________ Status Offenses

________ Traffic Infractions

________ School Rule Violations



Why do young people commit crimes? The list of possible causes is pretty long and not everyone agrees. However, there have been some recent studies of juveniles who live in neighborhoods with high crime rates, which may help you answer why young people commit crimes.


For example, in the Highlights of Findings from the Rochester Youth Development Study, reported in the OJJDP Fact Sheet April 1999, the researchers found that the relationship between the parent and the child was a crucial factor as to whether children turned to criminal actions. Children who were more attached to and involved with their parents were less involved in criminal conduct. Poor parenting increased the probability of criminal behavior, and criminal behavior further weakened the relationship between parent and child.


When young people had little commitment to school and did poorly in school, they were more likely to be involved in crime and drug use. Young people at greatest risk for criminal behavior, but who succeeded at school, were less likely to be involved in crime and drug use. Not surprisingly, young people who used drugs increased the likelihood of their dropping out of school.


Peer influence was also strongly related to criminal behavior: When young people made their friends with other young people who broke the law, they were much more likely to commit crimes themselves.


The study also found a strong relationship between gang membership and criminal behavior, particularly serious and violent crimes. The study showed that gang members had higher rates of violent offenses when they were active gang members than either before they belonged to the gang or after they left the gang. This shows that the beliefs and dynamics of the gang supported criminal and violent behavior.


Another important contributing factor was the social class and community that the respondent lived in. Those from areas with long-term, high-level poverty were more involved in crime. Economic hardship and stressful life events led to a lack of parent-child involvement, bonding to school, and control over the young people, which in turn led to increased criminal behavior.


These results will be important to remember as you move into your youth court experience. You will have a chance:


  • to help the respondent-parent relationship improve,

  • to strengthen the respondent’s connection to school, and

  • to be a part of positive peer influence that says to respondents that criminal conduct is wrong.


Parents or guardians of the young person who committed the crime are victims too. They may feel that their child has let them down, that this reflects poorly on them as parents, and that they are hurt and mad. They will have to take time to go to court and in some cases have to pay money. The broader community is a victim too. As crime happens, the community begins to feel less trusting of its members and becomes more concerned about the security of its property. The community has to use its tax revenues to pay for police, courts, and programs.


Did you ever hear the term victimless crimes? Are there such things? Absolutely not! Every crime has consequences on the community and the family of the person who committed the crime. What’s an example of a so-called victimless crime? Sometimes people describe underage drinking, curfew violations, possession of marijuana, truancy, and other acts as victimless crimes. It is true that these crimes do not have direct victims in quite the same way as a theft or an assault. However, the family and community are harmed by all these acts.

Your Turn

Name at least two victims for each of the actions below and explain how each victim is hurt.


  1. Truancy from school

  2. Cursing a teacher

  3. Violating curfew


You should have at least named the family of the respondent and the community and said how each is hurt by these actions.


Many states encourage diversion programs that remove less serious criminal matters from the full, formal procedures of the justice system. Typically, the defendant will be allowed to consent to probation without having to go through a trial. If he or she successfully completes the probation—for example, undergoes rehabilitation or makes restitution for the crime—the matter will be removed from the records.


In cases that do go to trial, a number of people are involved in the court. You could probably name most of the courtroom players. See if you really understand their jobs.


The judge presides in the courtroom. If a case is tried before a jury, the judge gives instructions to the jury on the law that governs the case and how the case will proceed. The judge tells the jury that its job is to decide the facts on the basis of the evidence presented and to apply the law to the facts as instructed by the judge. If there is no jury, the judge determines the facts and decides whether the defendant is guilty.


The court clerk or bailiff usually administers the oath to prospective jurors and to witnesses. The clerk is also in charge of physical exhibits introduced into evidence and is responsible for other administrative aspects of a trial.


The bailiff keeps order in the courtroom, calls the witnesses and is in charge of the jury, as directed by the judge. It is the bailiff’s duty to be certain no one attempts to influence the jury.


The lawyers for both sides—the prosecutor and the defense attorney—are also officers of the court. Their job is to represent their clients zealously, within the formal rules of the Code of Professional Conduct. The belief is that justice can best be achieved if each side’s case is vigorously presented by competent lawyers. The prosecutor represents the state and the defense attorney represents the defendant.


One major difference between youth courts and most courts is the emphasis that youth courts place on restorative justice. Restorative justice has three goals that are addressed in a balanced way: (1) holding young persons accountable for their actions by increasing the young persons’ understanding of all the harm they have caused and giving them opportunities to repair that harm; (2) increasing the skills and competencies of the offenders so that they can become productive members of society; and (3) involving the community in the disposition and in this way promote community safety.


Your youth court uses lawyers to argue the state’s case and lawyers to represent the young person. The attorneys present statements to the jury about the case from their point of view, including a recommendation for disposition, present evidence to support their views, and attempt to persuade the jury to impose the disposition they are seeking.



This section focuses on the ethics and demeanor required for participation in youth court. You know that there are certain expectations about the way people should behave and that those expectations vary, depending upon the situation. For example, you go to the movies and you’re expected not to talk during the movie. Or you see someone next to you in line has dropped her wallet, you’re expected to pick it up and give it back, or at least call her attention to it.


Ethics has to do with what you are expected to do, the right thing to do. When you serve on youth court, those expectations increase. Obviously, as an officer of the youth court, you are expected not to engage in crimes or problem behavior yourself and to be a good role model for others. You are also expected to convey that you take youth court seriously and that you are paying attention during the process. For example, what would the respondent and the parent think if they saw court members smiling at inappropriate times or making faces? Each youth court has its own dress code, and part of being a court member is making sure that you are appropriately dressed.


In addition, you and all the members of youth court are required to keep all information that you learn about a case confidential, including the respondent’s name and the facts of the case. Also, you are not allowed to participate in a case of a particular respondent when you have some conflict that would not allow you to be fair. For example, if the respondent had been in a fight with you before and you couldn’t fairly represent the respondent, you should not be a defense attorney for this case.



You are with a group of your friends and someone starts to talk about a student in your school who is a respondent in your youth court. You are tempted to tell them some of the reasons behind the troubles the student has, which you learned from youth court. Should you say anything?


You are not allowed to reveal anything you learned about the respondent; it doesn’t matter that you have a good motive for doing so. To say anything would be a violation of confidentiality.


Prosecutors and defense attorneys have additional ethical duties in youth court. They have an ethical obligation to tell the truth and to be zealous in fighting for their clients. This includes not calling witnesses who you know will lie to the court and in not helping your client lie when testifying. Attorneys must investigate the case sufficiently, be prepared for each case, be on time for their hearings, meet deadlines, and advise their clients, using their best judgment.


Prosecutors and defense attorneys also have an obligation to turn over to the other side any statements, documents, or evidence that will be used during the hearing. Prosecutors have an additional ongoing obligation to turn over to the defense attorney any evidence they discover that is favorable to the respondent as soon as they can do so. Also, depending upon your court’s process, prosecutors and defense attorneys need to reveal their list of witnesses they will call prior to the hearing. Lawyers are not allowed to contact a jury member privately to try to influence the outcome of the deliberations.


In addition to the ethical requirements of serving on youth court, there is also an expectation about the way you act during the hearing and deliberations. Respondents take youth court very seriously. It is important for them to see that you do too. This means that you show you are serious by performing your role effectively and paying attention during the hearing and that you follow the youth court dress code. It is important that you show respect for each person in youth court and toward the process itself.


Another requirement of youth court is that you evaluate each case on the basis of the actions and the evidence presented. You will have respondents come to youth court who are different from you. They may be from a rival school, a different economic background, or a different racial or ethnic group; belong to a different religious group; or have some other basic difference. These factors should not enter into your treatment of the individual. Stereotyping about people only hurts the fairness of the proceedings and shortchanges you and the respondent.


Sometimes people think they are being fair and don’t realize how their biases or stereotypes affect them. You might consider in individual cases whether you’d do to the same thing if the defendant were like you.



Regardless of the attorney role you are assigned, you need to prepare yourself for the interview by reading through the case information in advance and writing out questions. You need to schedule the interview with one witness at a time so that witnesses don’t try to change their story to make them all fit together. You need to take notes on the answers that the witness gives, including the time, place, and people present for the interview. It is important that you write enough notes and do so clearly so that you understand them later when you write them up into a statement.


You should be prepared in each case to ask open-ended questions to get out the information. It is usually best to develop some rapport with the witness before diving into the difficult parts of the questioning. You will not only want to ask about the facts of the case, but also about why and how the events happened and how the witness remembered them.


As one private investigator described the job of investigating, “You have to convince all the persons that you are investigating that they have an important story to tell and that you are interested in hearing it.”



If you are an attorney in youth court, you are responsible for preparing your witnesses, for example, victims, parents, and guardians whom you call to testify in youth court. You will need to go over the questions that you will ask on direct examination and explain what questions might be asked by the other side in cross-examination. You should also prepare the witnesses for the atmosphere of your youth court (formal on the witness stand, or informal around a table). Let the witnesses know they will take an oath of confidentiality and an oath to tell the truth. You should tell your witnesses to have eye contact with the jury members while they are testifying and to speak up so that everyone in court can hear them. It is important that you remind witnesses that they must answer questions fully and honestly and not avoid questions that ask them to relate difficult issues.


Tell the witnesses that on cross-examination, the other side’s lawyer will try to show weaknesses in their testimony or that they have said something inconsistent before. It is important that witnesses listen to the questions, clearly understand them, and then take their time in answering. One of the most convincing things a witness can do on cross-examination is remain calm and answer the questions carefully.


It is also crucial that you or your youth court coordinator notify witnesses in writing and verbally of the exact time, date, and location of the youth court session. On rare occasions, a youth attorney may have a disruptive interview with a parent, victim, or youth, perhaps because the individual is angry or simply uncooperative. The attorney should conclude the interview in a calm manner and report to the youth court coordinator.


If you are a prosecutor, you may have a special obligation to prepare generalized victim-impact statements in cases where a direct victim is unavailable, or to prepare community-impact statements for those offenses that have no direct victims.


If you are a defense attorney, part of your job is to support your client during the hearing. Your client may be experiencing a wide range of emotional reactions to being in youth court. You want to help your client be as straightforward with the court as possible. To help your client during the hearing, you might consider nodding your head, sitting close to the respondent, writing a message of support to the respondent, and other supportive actions.



If you are an attorney in youth court, you will begin by making an opening statement to the court, with the prosecutor making the first statement, followed by the defense attorney. This statement is addressed to the jury. It is the first time that you have to talk to the court.


Jurors have a hard time paying attention to opening statements when the attorneys just read their statements from a paper. You will want to have eye contact, be energetic, and be engaging, without being too dramatic. You will want to be confident in your case and in what you have to say and, of course, be dressed as is appropriate for your youth court.


Components of an Opening Statement

  • Greet judge(s) and jury

  • Introduce yourself


Content of the Presentation

  • Describe the offense or problem behavior and the circumstances surrounding it

  • Present a believable and persuasive case theory that describes the harm caused to all victims and how the harm can be repaired, the needs of the respondent, and the role of the community in the recommended disposition

  • Present facts that support case theory

  • Summarize evidence to be introduced, including witnesses, in an organized, engaging, and memorable fashion

  • Recommend a disposition (some youth courts don’t include a recommended disposition in the opening statement)



  • Make good eye contact with jurors

  • Speak in a confident manner

  • Speak loudly

  • Vary inflection



  • Dress to meet youth court requirements



You will not be surprised to hear that closing arguments happen at the end of the case, with the prosecutor making the first closing argument, followed by the defense, and in some youth courts, with a final word from the prosecutor.


Closing arguments are different from opening statements. If you are an attorney, you will argue for the recommended disposition during closing and explore the “why” behind your recommendation. You will use the evidence at the disposition hearing to support your recommendation. You will need to spell out clearly for the jury how the disposition you propose fits with restorative justice goals.


Because you won’t know exactly what evidence will be admitted at the hearing and what all the witnesses might say (there are always surprises), it is important that you understand that the closing arguments need to be developed in outline form, with flexibility for adapting as the hearing unfolds.


Components of a Closing Argument

  • Thank the jury for their time and attention



  • Give a summary of the case

  • Propose a disposition

  • Explain why the recommended disposition increases the respondent’s understanding of the effect of his or her actions, offers an opportunity for the respondent to repair harm caused, increases skills in the respondent, and promotes community safety. Review how the testimony and evidence support the recommended disposition

  • Refer only to evidence that was presented in court

  • Respond to claims made by the other side that are unwarranted or that conflict with their view of the recommended disposition

  • Make argument based on what happened at the hearing



  • Make good eye contact with the jury

  • Speak in a confident manner

  • Speak loudly

  • Vary inflection

  • Use a minimum of notes



As attorneys, you have another skill to master: questioning witnesses in court. You should always think to yourself as you ask questions, for example, How does my question ask for the evidence that supports restorative justice goals? That is, “What evidence can this witness tell us that helps us understand the nature of the offense or problem behavior, its impact on all victims, or ways to repair the harm? What do the victims think would repair the harm? What can this witness tell us about the skills and competencies this respondent needs to develop, the strengths the respondent has that can connect the respondent to the community, and involve the community in the disposition?”


You will be asking questions that fall into one of two formats, depending upon whose witness you are questioning. For witnesses whom you call to testify, you will ask direct-examination questions, that is, questions that are open-ended and get the witness to tell a story. For witnesses whom the other side calls, you will ask leading questions, ones that suggest the answer to the witness. Cross-examination is used to expose the weaknesses in the witnesses’ testimony or to show inconsistencies in their testimony.


The following are a few examples of direct and cross-examination questions. 


DIRECT          1. What do you like to do in your spare time?

CROSS           2. Isn’t it true that you have skipped four days of school during the first two weeks of school?

DIRECT          3. Tell the jury what you think the respondent should do to repair the harm.



Questions 1 and 3 are direct-examination questions because they are open-ended and get the witness to talk. Question 2 is a leading question, asked only on cross-examination, since it suggests the answer and only allows the witness to confirm or deny it.


During questioning, you may sometimes find that the witnesses are unresponsive, angry, emotional, terrified, or obviously lying. You might also have to ask questions of someone in a higher position of authority, such as a school principal, a police officer, or a parent who is also a lawyer. There are ways to handle each situation. Here are some tips, but feel free to think of more tips.


When questioning a witness who doesn’t have anything to say, try to figure out why (cultural difference, fear of retribution, shyness, embarrassment). Ask such witnesses easy questions, or begin with comments that might stimulate their interest, build their confidence, and/or reassure them that their testimony is valuable to the court.


When questioning angry or verbally abusive witnesses, acknowledge their anger calmly and encourage them to express the anger in a productive manner. For example, “I can see that you’re very angry about this, but it’s important that we show respect for this court and handle this case in manner that will result in a fair outcome.”


When questioning an emotional or terrified witness, it might be good to have tissues available in the court. Avoid using language that will trigger an emotional response. Instead, seek to use a matter-of-fact, calm, and respectful manner that will encourage the witness to respond calmly. If the witness begins to cry, you can say something like, “I can see you’re upset. Have a tissue and take a couple moments to relax and compose yourself before you answer.”


If a witness is obviously lying, you might explore the inconsistencies. As the jury, your job will include deciding who is telling the truth and what the facts are. It is not necessary for attorneys to get an admission from the witness that he or she is lying. You won’t likely succeed, and it very well may be that this is how the witness actually saw it.


When questioning a person in a higher position of authority, always use proper mode of address (Officer, Dr., Mr., Ms., Mrs.) and acknowledge his or her position as you begin. For example, “Officer Alvarez, as you were the first to arrive at the scene, you will be able to tell us . . .”


Open-Ended Questions

•   help the witnesses explain how the offense occurred, in the order that it occurred.

•   help the witness identify the impact of the offense on all victims.

•   get the witness to give ideas how the respondent can repair the harm.

•   help the witness define the respondent’s needs.

•   help the witness report ways of connecting the respondent to the community.

•   are not usually yes/no questions.



You are a prosecutor asking questions of the parent of a respondent, and the parent makes a very rude comment to you. What should you do?


You might indicate, “I see that you are very upset or angry about this, but it is important to show respect to the court.” If there is an adult advisor in the room, it may be best, depending upon the situation, for the adult to step in and insist that such behavior will not be tolerated.



The entire hearing process leads up to deliberating and deciding upon a disposition for the respondent. During the deliberations, you the jurors will be expected to use a variety of skills, including group discussion skills, applying restorative justice and performing deliberation duties. In Part Three, you will find the seven-step deliberation process developed by the National Youth Court Center. These steps should be followed in each deliberation.


Group Discussion Skills

It goes without saying that to come to a fair disposition, you must have listened and really understood what was said at the hearing. You also need to be aware that you, as well as your fellow jurors, use your own experiences when you hear other people speak, and that you interpret information on the basis of those experiences. Being aware of those assumptions and challenging them are part of being an active listener.


You will need to be on the alert during deliberations for juror assumptions or interpretations made about what was said in the hearing. It is crucial that every jury member understands the actual facts and is in clear agreement on what the facts are. You will need to speak up if you hear something in deliberations that is different from what you heard the witnesses testify, especially if it is important, so that everyone can agree on what was said. And if you don’t all agree, you must explore what the others believe and come to agreement as to the facts. If you hear someone say something contradictory, asks questions to see what the person means.


You will also be sorting out important, relevant facts from other details. If you use the three goals of restorative justice as your guide, you will be a long ways toward selecting out what is important and not important.


When you give your opinion during deliberations, make sure that you are clear and that you support your opinions by references to specific testimony, facts, and statements. Have a mental checklist that all relevant information from the hearing is taken into account. One of the group discussion skills that is particularly useful is summarizing points of agreement and disagreement as the deliberations move forward. In this way, juror members feel listened to and that their opinions are valued.


Another supportive group skill is reinforcing and building on comments made by other jurors. Comments like these help the jury to work as a group: “I agree with Terry that the respondent is a good athlete. I think that having him play basketball with younger students at the local community center is a good choice for his community service.”


Have you ever used persuasion? Of course you have! Every time you try to convince your parent or teacher to let you do something, you are using persuasion. What makes persuasion more likely to be successful? You’ll probably find that you are more persuasive when your arguments “connect” with the values of your parent, teacher or whomever you’re trying to persuade and get him or her to identify with your point of view or at least see things from your point of view. Generally, arguments are more persuasive when they are specific, detailed and expressed clearly, and with conviction.


Your jury may very well be made up of a variety of people, perhaps including respondents who are completing their disposition. It is important to treat all volunteers with respect and to make sure that all are included in the discussions.



During the deliberations, a jury member states that the respondent said she had stayed out past curfew every night for two weeks before she was caught. You heard the respondent say that her brother, not the respondent herself, had stayed out past curfew every night for two weeks. What would you do?

You should say that you want to get clear about what was said, that you had heard the two weeks out past curfew was the respondent’s brother and ask the entire jury what they had heard.

Application of Restorative Justice

The most effective jurors are those who can readily identify all the disposition options and understand how each is related to restorative justice goals. You should ask questions and make comments during deliberations that ensure that the dispositions get the respondents to understand how their actions affected others, create opportunities for the respondents to repair the harm, increase respondents’ skills, and involve the community in the disposition.


Seven-Step Deliberation Process was developed by Godwin, Heward, and Spina, 2000 for use by youth courts nationally. To ensure deliberations that are more likely to achieve restorative justice, jurors should follow these steps.


  1. Review the rules for jury deliberation (for example, select a presiding juror, review whether jury verdict must be unanimous or by consensus).

  2. As a group, review the facts and circumstances of the case. Also discuss your impressions of what you saw and heard during the hearing.

  3. Who were affected by the respondent’s actions? How were they harmed by the respondent’s actions?

  4. What are the needs of everyone who was affected by the harm—respondent, respondent’s family, victims, community?

  5. What needs to be done to repair the harm?

  6. Determine an appropriate sentence that will help meet the needs of the affected parties and reach agreement.

  7. Provide a written justification that explains the reasons for the disposition being imposed.

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