Our Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, JJIE.org, has its roots in part in The Race Beat, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book co-written by Hank Klibanoff, former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I was taken by how important it was for the press to shine a spotlight on the injustices taking place in the South before and during the Civil Rights era. Today that same kind of spotlight must be shone on the juvenile justice system, which, with its share of injustices, remains in the shadows of the collective American consciousness.
When John Fleming came our way as the prospective editor of the JJIE.org, I knew he was a kindred spirit who cares deeply about high quality, ethically sound journalism and equal justice for all. That dual commitment is illustrated in his just published essay in the Nieman Reports entitled: Compelled to Remember What Others Want to Forget.
Klibanoff, Fleming and a small cadre of other reporters explain what has driven them, often for no pay, to report on the long ago crimes against blacks during the Civil Rights era. Of that time, Fleming writes:
I think, believe and hope that through knowing, by accepting the truth of it all, we'd be better. In my dreaming times, I yearn for it. When I awaken, I realize that the way forward is through doing what we do best. We tell stories. We are journalists. And if we, as journalists, don't tell these forgotten stories, who will?
We all must read those Nieman Report essays and reflect on that time, but also concentrate on our time when the work begun during the Civil Rights era is nowhere near complete. We don’t want to have to wait 50 years to tell the stories that reveal the truth of our times – and thus we have the JJIE.org and our small team of writers under Fleming’s guidance, who are here to tell the stories of the kids who are often pushed to the far margins of society and to the far reaches of our collective consciousness.
Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City gives an excellent overview of how youth courts work in this video interview with Leonard Witt of the JJIE.org. They are completely teen driven with teens as judges, attorneys and juries who hear actual cases either referred by the police or the courts. Each teen judge, attorney or juror gets 30-hours of training and has to pass a "bar exam" to be able to serve.
In the youth courts Berman's center helps oversee, the kids running the courts come from a variety of backgrounds, so the offenders are being judged by their real peers. In fact, kids who once came before the court often come back later to serve as judges, attorneys and jurors, so Berman says it can be “a life changing experience.”
Kids sent to the court have already admitted guilt and are at the mercy of their peers to design the sanctions that will be administered.
The kids ask great questions, Berman says, and have “great BS detectors.” They listen to the individual cases and then the jury delivers a sanction that, according to Berman, tends to emphasize restoration.
The outcome might be a letter of apology, public service work or links to anger management. It turns peer pressure on its head, he says, making it a positive rather than a negative and that is the nub of the youth court idea.
Watch the video below for more details. You can download the manual on Recommended Practices for Youth Courts published by the Center for Court Innovation.