It’s a Saturday morning, and a bailiff is leading a defendant into the courtroom for sentencing. This is not just any court, though. This is the Orchard Park Youth Court, where students are attorneys and the maximum sentence is 40 hours of community service.
Youth Court, founded in 1994, is a program that aims to prevent juvenile delinquency. It is an official alternative to Family Court for minors (ages 7 to 15). Offenses that are handled by OPYC include misdemeanors, violations and infractions (i.e., shoplifting, harassment, vandalism). Youth Court offenders are almost always first-time offenders. Defendants come into Youth Court having admitted their guilt.
Orchard Park senior Megan Podgorski said the job of Youth Court is not “to find (the defendant) not guilty, because they can’t.”
The court is composed of high school students, embodying its slogan of “judgment by peers.” The members are trained by area attorneys and judges to serve as defense attorneys, prosecutors, clerks, bailiffs and judges. These individuals are held to a strict confidentiality agreement, to protect both the privacy of and the identity of the defendant.
Perhaps the most unique facet of Youth Court, though, is the sentencing, which is imposed in the form of community service. During a trial, the defense team lobbies for a lower number of community service hours while prosecution aims for a higher number. The defense usually cites a defendant’s decent grades or an after-school job. Despite the final recommendation of his/her peers, which is reached by compromise between the prosecution and defense, the judge has the final say in the number of hours of community service a defendant will be assigned. The number of hours can vary depending on the severity of the offense.
The location where the students will complete their hours as well as a timetable are designated by E. David Rebmann, the court’s executive director. If the hours are completed successfully, the individual’s permanent record is cleared of any and all evidence of whatever crime had been committed. This means that the or she will never have to put it on a job or college application. It is for this reason that Rebmann describes Youth Court as a “clean slate opportunity” for defendants.
The OPYC convenes one Saturday per month. If it does not have a case, it will invite a guest speaker from the community, hold a seminar or have a mock trial.
During a mock trial, OPYC members are handed a packet with the charges and the police report, and split into two teams (defense and prosecution). They will then conduct business as they normally would for a trial. Advisers are often brought in for the prosecution and the defense, with the express purpose of providing insight and guidance. The trial is often conducted twice to give students the opportunity to play both roles.
Becoming a part of Orchard Park Youth Court is no easy task. Interviews are conducted to select students from a pool of around 100 highly qualified applicants, narrowing it down to about half that size. The selected students must then study for and pass a bar exam. Provided that they are successful on this exam, members of Youth Court are sworn in by a judge.
Every four years, a new class is inducted to replace members that have graduated. Earlier this year, the class of 2014 was sworn in. Rebmann described this year’s class of 46 students as “the best and the brightest.”
When asked why they got involved in Youth Court, new inductees had various reasons.
Sophomore Michael Gossel said he joined because “it provides a wonderful opportunity to gain experience in the field of law.”
Sophomore Hala El Solh echoed Michael’s sentiments, adding that it could “improve many unique essential skills such as public speaking and negotiation.”
Sophomore Lucy Covello may have said it best, though, when she explained that it is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For Rebmann, who has been involved with Youth Court since its creation two decades ago, the why is common sense. “We’re doing this to serve the community and help people who may have made a mistake that they will never repeat,” he said.
Kelsey Auman is a senior at Orchard Park High School.