?The juvenile justice system was acting as a conveyor belt for the adult justice system.? ?Professor Edgar Cahn
?The juvenile justice system was acting as a conveyor belt for the adult justice system.? ?Professor Edgar Cahn Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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For more than a decade, hundreds of D.C. youth have come through Time Dollar Youth Court, a program established as an alternative to the juvenile justice system and a lifetime on the wrong side of the law. But now, barring a change in city budgets, the program might be finished.

Executive Director Carolyn Dallas wrote in an April 2 letter to parents that the youth court is out of money and will close on April 17. As referrals increase and funding dwindles, Dallas says, the program can no longer afford to pay its seven staffers.

Since its founding by UDC law professor Edgar Cahn in 1996, Time Dollar has given D.C.’s youth the opportunity for a trial by their peers, who sentence one another to such things as terms of jury duty and community service.

“The juvenile justice system was acting as a conveyor belt for the adult justice system,” says Cahn, noting that most adult criminals in the District (as elsewhere) first interact with the system before turning 18.

This school year alone, the D.C. Public School (DCPS) system has referred 461 students to the program. Last year, Youth Court received more than 850 referrals, the bulk of which came from DCPS and the police department. Administrators have asked those agencies for funds with no luck.

“This is horrible,” says Dallas.

The program boasts a recidivism rate of 13 percent—less than half that of the regular juvenile justice system. An Urban Institute study of youth courts across the country found that each case diverted from the justice system saves taxpayers $9,200, meaning the total savings for the District is in the millions.

Time Dollar derives its name from Cahn’s “time banking” economic philosophy. In a time-banking system, people earn an equal amount of “time dollars” regardless of what work they’re doing. The idea’s effectiveness in straightening out first-time-misdemeanor offenders has earned the program respect throughout the city. Hundreds of youth courts have popped up across the country, and, according to Cahn, more than 300 communities worldwide have adopted his time-banking model.

The program has operated out of D.C. Superior Court thanks to the generosity of Chief Judge Rufus King, who allows Time Dollar to occupy several rooms on Saturdays for Youth Court proceedings, a contribution that Cahn estimates is worth between $70,000 and $100,000 a year.

For the past three years, the program received some funds from the D.C. Department of Mental Health, but no more this year. Cahn says that last year Brenda Donald, the city’s deputy mayor for children, youth, families, and elders, promised public money for the program. But Walker resigned before Adrian Fenty became mayor, and her position has been eliminated.

“Once she left, we had no one to talk to in the Fenty administration,” says Cahn, who reports that he was surprised to learn that youth court was getting no money when Fenty released his budget on March 23.

Mayoral spokeswoman Carrie Brooks says the mayor’s office is sympathetic to the program, but that doesn’t mean funding is guaranteed to appear in the budget.

“We are going to do what we can to find funding sources for youth court,” Brooks says.

It’s not clear where that money should come from. Dallas says she’s gotten the “runaround” from DCPS and police.

In an April 4 letter, King indicated that the Superior Court is grateful to the youth court and would continue to provide space but not money.

And D.C. Department of Corrections director Devon Brown says his agency’s budget has no wiggle room.

“Our budget doesn’t support that. I think it’s a wonderful idea, but unfortunately there’s nothing for that in our budget,” says Brown, who adds that the corrections budget “has been combed through by the mayor’s office.”

Dallas is hoping a legislator will step up during the D.C. Council approval process. Without telling them why, two Saturdays ago Dallas asked some of the kids to write letters explaining what their Youth Court experiences had meant to them. The letters were sent to every councilmember.

One peer juror, identified as S.A., wrote: “Without Youth Court there would not be another chance for me. All my dreams would probably be over, just because I was around the wrong people and in the wrong place at the wrong time.”