Since the South Bronx Community Justice Center Youth Court opened in early April, the city has only referred 11 teenagers to the much-publicized youth court, City Limits has learned.
The alternative court has averaged less than one defendant every week, according to staff members–even though it could handle five times as many young lawbreakers.
Instead the largely teenage staff, who act as prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, jurors and note-takers, spends time lounging in a cozy living-room space at the South Bronx Community Justice Center.
“The administration is scared to try something new, people are skeptical of programs run by youth,” said Jose Rosado, a gang outreach worker with Youth Force, the Mott Haven-based nonprofit that runs the court.
Mary Ellen Flynn, assistant commissioner with the city’s Department of Probation, said the court’s initial catchment area was too small, so few offenders were available for referral. “More recently, we have broadened out the area,” she added.
Family Court judges, at the recommendation of probation officials, are supposed to refer low-level juvenile offenders to the court instead of sentencing them to incarceration. Once in the alternative court, defendants are “sentenced” to perform community service jobs with Youth Force. If a defendant does not comply with the sanctions outlined by the court he or she will be returned to Family Court for conventional sentencing.
So far, the teenagers brought to the court have included kids caught with small amounts of drugs or accused of petty larceny. According to Youth Force director Kim McGillicuddy, the court has assigned them to gang prevention projects, voter registration drives, a mural painting program, and has used the troubled teens to organize basketball leagues. At a trial attended by City Limits, one 10th grader, caught with marijuana, was sentenced to serve on two juries at the Youth Court, complete five hours of work on a community action project, and spend four hours at a legal education and gang prevention workshop.
But youth advocates say such trials are rare because the probation department and Family Court judges are reluctant to refer juveniles to alternative-to-incarceration programs–including the youth court.
“The Giuliani administration is not interested in alternative-to-incarceration programs,” said Darlene Jorif, Director of the Juvenile Justice program at the Correctional Association of New York. “There is an increasingly negative attitude to young people. Judges are afraid of being lambasted by the press…they are highly criticized and they are afraid of backlash and embarrassment by the press if a kid goes on to commit other crimes.”
The drumbeat for alternative-to-incarceration programs has increased recently in the wake of the city’s decision to house overflow youth inmates on an East River prison barge.