The City of Buffalo's Youth Court, the first such program in the state's large cities and a model for similar programs around the area, will go into session Oct. 9 for a fifth year.
So far, the junior and senior high school students who serve as judges, prosectors and defense attorneys have handled cases involving 620 minor offenders.
City Court Judge Thomas P. Franczyk oversees the program with Lamont Burley, city youth coordinator, and Pam Kehoe, case manager.
Under the program, peer judges impose sentences of community service and professional counseling on juvenile offenders who have pleaded guilty in Erie County Family Court to minor offenses involving theft, criminal mischief or low-level drug crimes and agree to participate in Youth Court effort.
The Youth Court judges also are allowed to order defendants to pay restitution or write letters of apology.
So far, 108 students 12 to 17 years old have completed training as court officials. Franczyk says he expects another 40 to sign up before Oct. 9.
"The purpose of Youth Court is to use peer pressure in a positive way to persuade young offenders to take responsibility for their actions and to help them become productive, law-abiding members of their community," Franczyk said. "It's also a great training ground for students who may be interested in pursuing a career in the law."
Participants receive 30 hours of training in the basics of criminal law and procedure, courtroom advocacy and ethics, and get the chance to argue both sides of a case, examine witnesses and make sentencing recommendations.
Each participant has to pass a final examination before being certified to serve as judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the Youth Court, Franczyk said.
Franczyk stressed that the Youth Court proceedings are conducted under full adult guidance though the City's Division for Youth and Michael Norwood, its executive director.
Buffalo Public Schools also play an active role.