Buffalo City Court's innovative Youth Court program -- in which young offenders are judged by their peers rather than adult judges, probation officers or school officials -- is training its first crop of student judges and lawyers after a five-year hiatus due to budget problems.
"This has been a long time coming, and we have one of the largest and most enthusiastic groups of students we've ever had," said City Judge Thomas P. Franczyk, coordinator of the program that began in 1995 before being suspended in 2002.
Franczyk, who is assisted in the after-school program by City Judges Craig D. Hannah and Sharon M. LoVallo, said Youth Court gives prospective trial lawyers and judges "their first slice of life in a courtroom" long before getting to law school.
Franczyk said the participants complete about 30 hours of training before taking on roles as judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys "in a real courtroom setting." Their cases involve young offenders who have pleaded guilty to lower-level offenses and voluntarily submit to judgment imposed by their peers.
The 30 participants meet Tuesdays and Thursdays after school in the City Court Building and are instructed on the fundamentals of criminal law and how to develop their advocacy skills, he said.
"It's both an interactive classroom and courtroom where the students are not only responsible for the substantive law but must be able to argue both sides of an issue in a persuasive lawyerlike and ethical fashion," Franczyk said.
Youth Court participants deal with offenders who admitted to disorderly conduct, petit larceny and criminal mischief. Sentences can include letters of apology, community service, restitution and professional counseling through a City Court program, he said. Youthful offenders who fail to carry out the terms of their Youth Court sentences are referred to Erie County Family Court for proceedings there.
"The purpose of Youth Court is to persuade young offenders through positive peer pressure to take responsibility for their actions by carrying out constructive sentences that hold them accountable but also help them get back on the straight and narrow," Franczyk added.
The current program involves 20 girls and 10 boys from Bennett, City Honors, Math and Science Technology, Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, McKinley, Burgard and Hutchinson-Central Technical high schools.
The Youth Court participants have been meeting since last semester and could begin dealing with cases by late February.