The Genarlow Wilson case continues to garner national attention, becoming a lightening rod for a myriad of legal and moral issues. It has prompted spirited debates over mandatory-minimum sentence laws, teen sexual activity, underage drinking, and civil rights. The past few weeks have produced many editorials and blogs that have covered the differing opinions this case brings to light.
After reading several articles about this case, I thought of dedicating a blog entry to the advent of mandatory-minimum sentences laws, how they have prevented judges from using their discretion in sentencing, and how the U.S. incarceration rate has continued to increase exponentially since these laws were put on the books. Instead, I’d like to focus on an interesting program some communities are using to prevent youth incarceration.
Youth court programs, in which juvenile offenders are questioned, defended, and sentenced by their peers, offer an alternative. Typically, young offenders are offered youth or teen court as a voluntary alternative in lieu of more formal handling by the traditional juvenile justice system. Youth courts offer ways to engage the community in a partnership with the juvenile justice system to respond to juvenile crimes by increasing the awareness of delinquency issues on a local level and by mobilizing community members and youth to take an active role in addressing the problem. By applying peer pressure in a positive way, most youth court programs show success in keeping participants out of trouble.
The primary function of most youth court programs is to determine a fair and restorative sentence or disposition for the young respondent. With a study showing a recidivism rate of six to nine percent among youth court participants, I find this to be a much better alternative to trying and sentencing youth as adults.