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Eight kids sit swiveling in their chairs, talking and chatting like it’s just another Saturday morning. A man in front of them lays down some ground rules.

“You must pay attention, sit up-right,” he says. “Don’t laugh or turn in your chair. Don’t be disrespectful. Show respect for the judges.”

These are some of the rules that Nicholas Grimaldi, an advocate judge for Time Dollar Youth Court (TDYC), gives to the jury that will be deciding the cases he hears on Saturday mornings in the DC Court of Appeals at 500 Indiana Ave. NW.

The eight kids who are laughing and swiveling are the jury members, completing part of their sentence from when they sat before a similar judge and jury, some Saturday mornings ago. Jury duty is what makes youth court work—it’s not like the jury duty you might be used to. The youth that participate get to ask questions and they get to decide the sentencing of the juvenile sitting before them. Grimaldi, a law student by day, does not decide the case. He keeps decorum and helps the jury reason through punishments.

“Youth court is a home, it gives people a second chance” says Lamar Ramos-Peterson a graduating junior at Petworth’s Roosevelt Senior High School who has been participating with D.C. Time Dollar Youth Court for the last two years.

Youth Court is a diversion program for juveniles who have committed their first or second crime. They process relatively minor offenses, from disorderly conduct to shoplifting to unlawful entry to simple assault. Most of the cases involve fighting in school.

“It is premised on the idea that kids don’t listen to adults, ” says Rene Gornall, the contracts manager for TDYC. The scorn of peers, she reasons, might do more to change behavior than some more finger-wagging from adults.

“We call it positive peer pressure,” Gornall says.

TDYC follows the peer jury model. Students who get processed through the normal juvenile justice system and diverted to the program must go though an intake interview and the peer jury hearing. They are then sentenced with a specific punishment. Almost all are given jury duty, an essay assignment pertaining to their case, and are asked to give a verbal apology to the parent with them.

Some are given additional sentences including community service, after-school programs, or educational programs.

“We recognize that kids are going to make some mistakes. But we want to guide and help them through that,” says TDYC Executive Director Carolyn Dallas. “Some of us got a second chance and some didn’t. My job is to say, ‘our kids need a second chance.'”

This idea idea is echoed not only by those who run the program but by those who participate. Ramos-Peterson says youth court gave him the second chance he needed how valuable that was for him. Even after his sentence, he sticks around as a volunteer.

Another high school student who participates in the program, Kevietta McCants, acts as an advocate judge. (McCants is there as a volunteer, not because she’s been punished.)

“I’m going to be a principal,” says McCants who got involved eight years ago when her father worked with the program. “I think education is important and advocating for the youth. They make mistakes but ultimately, they’re good people and I want to help develop them and give them a second chance.”

Dallas cites a recent study that found that the kids who go through Youth Court come out with better decision making, goal setting and analytical skills. By working through the cases and deliberating on the sentences that they mete out, young offenders develop skills they could use to reason through other problems.

“We help young people make better decisions,” Dallas says.

Despite research from the American Bar Association and other organizations that has found youth courts to be an effective use of funding, these programs  face regular cash-flow problems, in D.C. and elsewhere.

“D.C. [government] is very committed,” Dallas says. But her organization’s funding history tells a more complicated story. Although TYDC started with $450,000 in taxpayer funding eight years ago, over the last two years, that number has decreased by $150,000, or a third. The program is constantly seeking alternate sources of revenue.

Photo by Flickr user srqpix using an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license