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Only 11 teenage trouble makers have been referred to the South Bronx Community Justice Center Youth Court since it opened in early April, City Limits has learned.

The much-publicized alternative court has averaged fewer 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, spend court hours hanging out 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,” says Jose Rosado, a gang outreach worker with Youth Force, the Mott Haven-based nonprofit that runs the court. The team also does street outreach, community action projects and legal education classes.

Family Court judges, at the recommendation of probation officials, are supposed to refer low-level juvenile offenders to the court. The alternative court then “sentences” defendants to perform community service jobs with Youth Force. If a defendant does not comply, he or she is returned to Family Court for conventional sentencing.

So far, the teenagers brought to the court have included kids accused of drug possession and petty larceny. According to Youth Force director Kim McGillicuddy, the court has assigned them to gang prevention projects, voter registration drives and 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.

Mary Ellen Flynn, assistant commissioner with the city’s Department of Probation, explains that few offenders were initially available for referral because the court’s catchment area was too small. “More recently, we have broadened out the area,” she says.

But youth advocates say the program is underused because the probation department and Family Court judges may be reluctant to refer juveniles to alternative-to-incarceration and alternative-to-court programs–including the youth court.

“Nobody but [the Department of] Probation knows why they aren’t getting the referrals,” says Darlene Jorif, director of the Juvenile Justice program at the Correctional Association of New York, which advocates for criminal justice reform. “My guess is that, given the changes in the Department of Probation–their alternative-to-court program lost almost $200,000 in this year’s budget, and they’re just now starting up a new diversion program–these things are taking attention away from the need to refer to youth court.”

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