Without meaning to, our juvenile justice system is turning young kids into hardened criminals faster than any gang in town. It’s a simple process I’ve watched many times. Out of compassion and overwork, the prosecutor’s office chooses not to prosecute a youth’s first couple of offenses, concentrating instead on hardened, repeat offenders. Young people quickly get the message: “You get three freebies before anyone takes you seriously.”
When I shared that observation with a superior court judge in Washington, D.C., his response was immediate and direct: “What do you want to do about it? And how fast can you do it?”
Before I knew it, my organization, the Time Dollar Institute, and the University of the District of Columbia School of Law were launching an inner-city youth court to focus on these “harmless” first offenses.
Being part of the Time Dollar Youth Court vests young people with a responsibility to tell it like it is to kids whom they have never seen before. Consider the following case.
An inner-city youth is charged with having slashed the tires on his teacher’s Lexus because she kept him after school for failing to hand in his homework. The teenage jury hears the young man explain that he knows he did wrong, but he lost control. He had begged the teacher to let him leave for 10 minutes to bring his younger brother and sister safely home from school across gang territory. That was his “job.” He had promised his mother and father they could count on him. When he slashed the tires, he was beside himself with rage at the teacher, shame that he had let his parents down, and fear for his brother’s and sister’s safety.
The jury returned from its deliberations with a four-part sentence.
- Get this kid another teacher. A teacher who doesn’t understand what this kid is going through has no business being his teacher.
- Write a letter of apology to the teacher and make a good faith payback of at least $30 that you personally earned.
- Write a letter of apology to your brother and sister explaining why, despite the provocation, this was no way to act. They look up to you; you need to put them straight that acting out this way is not right.
- Hang out a minimum of 20 hours at a boys’ club over the next month. You need to be a kid and spend some time just being with your own age group.
The Time Dollar Youth Court is different from other youth courts in that it does not use a youth prosecutor or defense counsel. It is essential , we feel, for the jury to interact directly with the offender and the parent. An adult presides, but the jury foreperson, a teenager, leads the questioning and calls upon other jurors to ask questions.
The court handles 7 to 12 hearings each week. That’s more than 350 cases per year — roughly a third of first-time, nonviolent juvenile offenses in the District. Jurors earn one time dollar for each hour of jury duty. With the “money” they earn, they can purchase a recycled computer to take home.
The message for participants is clear: Helping others creates opportunity, and you have the power to shape your destiny.
No more “throwaway kids”
We learned quickly that we do not have to teach these children how to care for each other.
At one of our first youth court hearings, we watched the foreperson of the jury, herself a single mother, trying to get answers from a teenager who had taken someone’s car joyriding at 2 a.m.
The defendant knew how to stonewall. He sat hunched over, eyes on the floor. We could barely hear his answers. Juror frustration was building.
Finally, the foreperson made a direct personal plea: “We are only trying to do what it is we can do. The only way we can do anything is if you help us. With you just sitting there, just chilling, being quiet, you know, it’s not going to do nothing.”
The boy’s mother broke in: “Basically, Ronald’s a good child. Since he can’t speak up, I’ll speak up for him so you all can help him. We’re in an area where there’s nothing but drugs. Nothing but killing. No positive role models around there. His oldest brother has been killed, and basically Ronnie has been a troubled child because his brother died in front of him.” She went on to explain that since then, Ronnie did not trust anyone and would not open up to anyone.
The jury went into momentary shock, but not the foreperson. She took over, and everything changed. “I could understand exactly why he gets into trouble.”
Her voice slowed, halted, then deepened as she choked up: “I seen my own mother get killed. It’s hard growing up, knowing all these things that you know and experiencing the things that you experience not because it’s your choice.”
Tears streamed down her face as she added: “We’re here to help. But we can’t help you if you don’t help us.”
These are the youth whom so-called experts are now labeling “superpredators.” People don’t look these children in the eyes when they meet them. But these kids care for each other, even though they are strangers.
Our next step was creating a Youth Grand Jury to provide a voice for young people within the juvenile justice system.
Giving youth a voice enables them to feel valued and, at the same time, to engage in bringing about social change. Youth jurors had watched patterns emerge: schools failing to teach, drug use going untreated. They recognized that handling individual cases was not enough; the system needed to do more if it was going to address those problems.
So we created the Youth Grand Jury and hoped it would give youth a voice that the system could not silence.
We have provided our Youth Grand Jury with a staff of law students and a law professor to collect and analyze facts, and to speak to adult decision makers about what needs to happen to make the system work better for young people.
The first Youth Grand Jury called for system change, initially focusing on drug problems among youth. Among other recommendations, it proposed that kids create a drug-free youth club that combines community service with fun and drug prevention with recreation and special events.
The Time Dollar Youth Court and the Youth Grand Jury are demonstrating that young people have much to teach us adults. We ought to listen, and, at the very least, give them the opportunity to show what they can do.
We hope to see the Time Dollar Youth Court emerge as a force that transforms juvenile justice, a catalyst through which youth can take the lead and provide an example to the entire community of what it means to say “No more throwaway kids.”