In a move that could expand youth courts in Philadelphia, City Council is expected to accept a report this week by the Committee of Public Safety that lays out a series of recommendations for setting up youth courts in schools that work in tandem with the juvenile justice system.
“This is another step to divert the pipeline from schools to prison,” said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who along with Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez urged Council to take action on youth courts.
The courts are devoted exclusively to nonviolent and misdemeanor offenders, who are tried and sentenced by other students in an effort to curb their behavior before they reach the level of Common Pleas Court.
There are 1,050 youth court programs in 49 states — 15 in Pennsylvania and at least eight in Philadelphia.
While lauding the local programs, Jones worried that they didn’t reach enough youth. To broaden the reach, Jones said he would like to see more courts in the city’s middle and high schools.
The report, which comes before Council on Thursday, lays out a series of 10 recommendations. Among them, the committee recommended that the city begin to look at ways to fund youth courts in the city within the school district and the juvenile justice system. It also recommended that city officials advocate for state statutes governing programs statewide.
Jones estimates the cost of such courts could run as high as $7,000 each, but said he hoped the city would not have to bear that cost. Comparing that to the cost of incarceration – roughly $30,000 a year – Jones said that’s a bargain.
“We save youth and we save dollars,” he said.
Hoping about half the cost could be defrayed by private donations and volunteers, he said, he expected costs to run between $3,000 and $5,000 each.
Costs include training and things like furniture.
“Where the real cost comes in is training, personnel to actually train the youth,” he said.
Already, Jones has discussed the idea with the Philadelphia Bar Association, and hopes it will help get a program up and running, and said he hoped to enlist other organizations — suggesting that groups like the city’s trade unions might be persuaded to donate labor.
At hearings on the matter in June, school district officials said they supported the concept in principle.
“The School District of Philadelphia believes in the value of teen court and welcomes further discussion,” Rodney Oglesby, the district’s director of government relations, told council.
There are several youth courts already operating in the city, but they are run by nonprofits.
The first was established at Kensington High School in 1998. It was developed and run by the Norris Square Neighborhood Project. It deals with minor school infractions like cutting class or use of profanity.
“This process is empowering,” said Jones. “It actually makes them respect the law and take responsibility for their actions.”
Students must agree to appear before the courts and adhere to their rulings. Sentences range from community clean-up to writing essays - but one crucial component is that students often avoid suspension, which keeps them engaged and removes what for some is an incentive – suspension.
The next step, said Jones, is to figure out a way to pay for the courts.
“We’re competing with a whole other list of priorities,” said Jones.