Project Youth Court, giving young offenders an alternate route

Clarice Silber / CTMirror.org

Jane Michaud, executive director of Project Youth Court.

There are more than 1,000 youth courts across the country, but in Connecticut, there’s only one.

That’s Project Youth Court in New Haven, a non-profit organization that mainly uses trained teenage volunteers to run hearings for young, non-violent misdemeanor offenders. With guidance from professional judges and attorneys, the youth volunteers regularly take on the roles of jurors, clerks, bailiffs and attorneys every Tuesday night.

The hearings held in the federal courthouse give youth who have committed crimes an alternative route to the traditional judicial court system. But participating in the youth court means accepting responsibility for crimes right off the bat, which is something the organization says ties directly into its restorative justice model.

Project Youth Court participants get a sentence involving volunteer hours, taking part in programs, and serving on a future youth court jury. It also allows them to avoid a criminal record.

Jane Michaud, executive director of Project Youth Court, says Project Youth Court isn’t there to determine guilt or innocence, and it pushes the young offenders to hold themselves accountable. Michaud hopes to open more youth courts across Connecticut and is currently working on taking the project to Hartford.

In this Sunday conversation, The Mirror sat down with Michaud to hear about Project Youth Court and its restorative justice method.

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I wanted to ask you first off just how you got involved with Project Youth Court.

So in 2014, I was in need of a job … I used to be a special ed teacher and hadn’t taught for quite a while. So I was home raising kids and I saw an ad on Craigslist. And there were a couple of Yale students, one of the Yale students specifically, Andrew Grass, was from Sarasota Florida — and when he was a teen in Sarasota there was a youth court there, and youth courts are really very common throughout the United States and have been around for quite some time.

Connecticut has been very slow to come to the table with youth courts. And so, when Andrew came to Connecticut to go to Yale he noticed that there was no youth courts in Connecticut. And so, he really spearheaded the idea and sort of started it and wanted to get it into Connecticut … I answered his ad and started as a case manager, and so we started working together really from the ground up. I mean having nothing.

I started in 2014 and we took our first case in 2015. So we had a year of just planning and creating documents and figuring out recruiting volunteers and finding the space. You know the U.S. federal courthouse that we were in — there was a lot of back-work that needed to be done. And we took our first case in 2015 and currently we are still the only [youth] court in the state of Connecticut. But we would love to expand.

We’ve got the concept, we’ve got it down and we’re actually working in Hartford right now to try to get it to take off in Hartford, but it’s a lot of work that goes into getting it up and running.

Lori Mack / WNPR

Project Youth Court is held in the federal courthouse in New Haven.

So walk me through the process. How does it work?

We get referrals from the New Haven Police Department, juvenile probation, New Haven Public Schools, the technical schools are under the Connecticut State Police — so we do get sometimes a few referrals from the technical schools. So we will get a referral — in the school situation that’s usually in place of suspension or expulsion. In terms of the police those are actual summonses.

What I’m really trying hard right now to work on is to get youth before it’s an expulsion. And so sometimes schools will refer to us when they just see a pattern of behavior that’s becoming concerning and how can we address it in a different manner because what we’ve been doing obviously is not working. So we receive a referral and these are usually first-timers, maybe second-timers, you know teens, low-level misdemeanors. We would never take a felony or anything like that.

I make contact with the parent. It’s a voluntary program and they have to come into the program admitting responsibility, being accountable for their behavior, because everything we do is based on restorative justice and that’s a different thinking cap, in that you have to be accountable, be responsible, identify the harm that this caused and repair that harm. So those are sort of the pillars that we live by.

The first step is doing comprehensive intake. And that’s really my time to meet with the family and the client. We refer to them as the client. You know our language is different because it’s all restorative justice language. We would never say defendant. We would always say client — you know, we’re a compassionate court.

So they come in, and that intake is about an hour to an hour and a half long. Very comprehensive, very holistic in terms of looking at what’s really the underlying cause of these problems, and generally after an hour, an hour and a half, I can figure it out. And that just guides me in terms of, ‘All right, what do we need to do here potentially?’ So from there we schedule their hearing at the federal courthouse.

It’s a courtroom just like you would imagine it would be. It’s a very serious  tone. We have opening statements, questioning, closing statements. The jury goes out to deliberate. Our model is an adult judge model, so we have attorneys from the community that volunteer to oversee the proceedings, because we want everything to be legally proper. Occasionally we will have a judge, a real judge.

We’ve got two courtrooms at the courthouse that we can use. We have two judges that support our program, which we’re super appreciative of, that space is critical in my opinion for making what we do very meaningful and impactful and powerful because it’s very serious. They know they’re coming into a courthouse and we’re not fooling around. We may be compassionate and supportive, but we’re not fooling around. You know this is serious.

It’s done just like you would think it would be done, the difference being that it’s teenagers doing all the attorney work and going out and being jurors and deliberating. They come back with a restorative contract, as we call it, that’s going to include community service hours as a means of giving back to the community.

But we always said we wanted to be more positive-youth-development-based. It’s not about going out and washing floors. It’s about doing something that you believe in, that you’re passionate about, that you feel good about giving back to the community.

The client is going to have to come back and do jury duties, which is a really significant piece of the process in my opinion because that allows them to come back. They’re surrounded by excellent role models which are the youth volunteers. They then have a voice in deciding what happens to someone else. It’s another means of them giving back to the community, and I think it’s very powerful for them to be able to sit on the other side of the process and have their opinion matter.

And you know the ultimate goal for us is at the end of their restorative contract, assuming they’re successful, that they come back and they want to volunteer for the program.

Who trains these attorneys and these jurors? How did they learn these skills?

So we do a lot of training. Right now I’ve got a really strong core of really excellent attorneys. But local attorneys do, and they will come in in the fall. We ran five sessions of  training where attorneys that have agreed to volunteer for the program came in, and every session we would take a different subject. We would have a practice two-hour training on that. And you know some of the youth are more confident than others and have the skills. Some of them will come to me and they’ll just never be an attorney because they’re not comfortable, and that’s just not where they want to be. And we always try to say, ‘Who’s the most powerful person in the courtroom?’ It’s the juror.

Why do you feel this approach is better than the normal adjudication process for someone that’s young?

Well first of all, our normal system is a punishment model: You do bad, we punish you. The statistics are clearly showing that’s not working.

You know the recidivism, they just continue to do it over and over and over again. Or the other extreme is they get a slap on the hand and nothing happens and they don’t learn from it. So, they don’t learn from it via the sort of minor slap on the hand and they don’t learn from being punished.

This is a more comprehensive process. Sometimes families say to me, ‘Well, you know, I can go to juvenile court and I’ll be in and out of court in a day or a morning and then I’m done.’ That’s what they perceive. And that may actually be the case. And my answer to that is, you know it is going to take longer to go through Project Youth Court. I will tell you that right up front. But, we want … something that’s going to stick, something that’s really going to be meaningful for them so they really, really get the harm caused to themselves and their family and then the community.

But we always do that in the intake. We have a good time where I say to them, ‘What harm have you caused here?’ and, honestly, many times the youth look at me, ‘What do you mean?’ You know they have never really thought about it. They’ve never been pushed to think about it in that means. And so that’s the time where we really talk about, well what harm did you do to yourself? What harm did you do to your family? You know  you broke trust, you’ve got a record now, and we really take time to explore that. And I think they start to get it more.

And then of course that’s step one, step two is this two hours at the federal courthouse where you’re being questioned by your peers. The peer-to-peer justice is what it truly is. And that’s what our legal system is based on — peer-to-peer justice. Well, this is true peer-to-peer justice for teens, and typically it’s not.

Lori Mack / WNPR

A youth court session in progress.

Well that’s what I was going to ask you next. What type of impact do you think it has for these participants to be sanctioned by their peers?

It’s huge. I mean it’s huge.

I will tell you that this has happened repeatedly — I do the intake, I write a case summary up for the attorneys, I go in, I meet with the attorney before the case and they’re prepping, and I’ll say, ‘You know that this is a really tough guy and he wouldn’t share any information with me. I don’t know guys, I don’t know how this is going to go tonight.’

And then they will be meeting with the client and I’m worried because I know how that particular client was with me and I’ll go back and I’ll check, and I’ll be like, ‘Hey how’s it going? And they’re looking at me like ‘Jean, it’s going great.’ … and there’s the magic, there’s the magic — it’s the peer to peer.

They’re open, they’re willing to be more open with their peers, and it’s more meaningful. And I’ve seen it time and time and time again. And not only do we use the teen volunteers as attorneys and jurors and just sort of running the whole night, we also have as part of a restorative contract option, what we call, we have a PYC buddy … and that’s just another teenager who steps up to the plate and says, ‘I want to be that sort of support for that client. And I want to check in with him weekly and what kind of support does he need, whether it’s just a friend.’

You know some of our clients are high risk, some of them come in and they don’t have a support system at all, and you can tell they need a friend.

So how long is the process for each case? How long is each case prepared, and once they go to their hearing are there other witnesses or is it just them?

That’s on a case-by-case basis. I mean sometimes we will bring in another critical component to the case. Sometimes victims, that can be a little dicey. So, again, that’s a case-by-case call, but sometimes there’s a teacher, or a policeman, or you know just an administrator from the school, or someone that’s critical in the case.

Occasionally we have had the client say to me, ‘Can my shop teacher come in and sort of vouch for me that I’m really a good kid?’ And I’m like ‘Absolutely, if you want someone to come in, or you have a friend, someone that you want to be supportive and speak to your characteristics and your positive skills, absolutely we will allow that.’ So that’s done on a very case-by-case basis.

When I get the referral — we try to be as quick as we can in responding because … you behave negatively, you know the response is very quick and so I feel really strongly about that. And then their hearing is scheduled as quickly as we possibly can schedule it and then generally we start out with three months to complete their restorative contract.

Sometimes situations are such where we have to extend that because there’s extenuating circumstances that that youth is dealing with, but as long as they are working in a diligent manner, I will extend it if I need to.

On a rare occasion, sometimes they’re just not willing to comply at all and the family’s not willing to comply, and you work with them and work with them and it just doesn’t work out. But that happens very, very rarely. More often than not, we’ve got, I would say, about an 80 percent at least success rate.

In that case are they turned over to the regular system?

Then they go back to the regular system, exactly. I report back to my referral source and I say, ‘You know, this is what we’ve tried.” And then the charge will be re-upped and they will go back through the traditional system.

Has this program been an outlet for youth that are interested in law, becoming lawyers, or getting into the justice system?

Absolutely. We have youth come in just because they want to do good for their peers.

But we also have them come in because they might be a little interested. One of our youth volunteers, he came in and he had a lot of different things that he wanted to be, none of which was a lawyer, and he’s been with the program for a couple of years actually. And he just said to me not so long ago … I want to be a lawyer.

You can see budding lawyers come out because we’ve had real attorneys from the community who watch, and they’re like, ‘They’re better than some of my real attorneys in the office.’

They’re pretty amazing. I mean there’s not a Tuesday night that I don’t walk out of that courthouse and I’m like ‘Wow, I’m just so proud of them.’ They’re amazing, what they do for their peers, and skilled.

What’s the difference in implementing a program like this in terms of costs versus someone being adjudicated in the regular system?

Oh, there’s a huge difference in cost. I don’t have the actual numbers under my nose right now, and I’m sure you know there could be a lot of variance in what people report. Our program is run primarily by volunteers. We do need money and funding to run. You know I get paid and I have a 10-hour-a-week administrative assistant. Everyone else is a volunteer.

We have 68 volunteers for the program — youth and adults in total — not that we’re using 68 all the time. But there are attorneys from the community, our youth volunteers, and we have interns from the University of New Haven.

The costs to run our program are dramatically less because it’s just using people and their passion and care for others.

Are most of the participants from the New Haven area or do you get people from all over?

New Haven and surrounding areas. We have a teenager right now that every single Tuesday night her father brings her from Simsbury. So primarily, but sometimes teens just believe in the work and they want to do good for their peers and they make the drive. And I’m so proud of them always that they’re willing to do this.

Any sense of how many people have passed through the program?

Since 2015, every year for youth volunteers we run between 35 and 50, and then we’ve got a whole chunk that have been around and then some come in and some come out.

And as far as clients?

We only took one in October, but we’re well over 100. I would say we’re between 125 and 150.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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