Guest Blog: Youth Courts and Uplifting Our Communities

When my supervisor, Gregory Volz, trained his first group of students to run a youth court in Chester, PA, he asked them “What is the law?” as a simple introductory question. After a long silence, one student hesitatingly raised a hand and said, “The law is… when they indict you for something that you did not do.” Gregg cites this quote in a law review article on youth courts. Personally, I think this story is a prime example of both the poor educational system in Chester and the tainted relationship between many community members (especially youth) and the legal system.

In high school or middle school, student governance should be primarily restorative. In a low-income community like Chester, where students are negatively predisposed toward authority and discipline; where suspension or expulsion feels like a holiday; where getting a good education is difficult even if students stay in school; and where more and more students are falling into the school-to-prison pipeline, restorative peer-to-peer discipline is even more critical.

While training a group of high-achieving Chester students to run youth courts this summer, we asked about the challenges in their schools, intending for them to discuss common triggers for misbehavior and how a disposition can help overcome these. Instead, the overwhelming response was, “Everyone expects us to fail.” This attitude – of teachers, parents, other students, even the broader world – keeps students from engaging in their community, holding each other accountable, and getting the most out of their education.

One of my most encouraging workdays was watching two Chester High graduates testify in a Philadelphia City Council hearing on youth courts. My co-workers and I helped prepare them. The first young man is heading to college in the fall. This past year he served as a talented judge on the day that members of Philadelphia City Council came to observe one of the Chester youth court. During the hearing, the Councilman who chaired the Committee – and attended the session in school – was very impressed with both students, and kept referring to the former judge as “Your Honor”. The second young man, also an experienced and impressive youth court member, testified that he “was once a troubled youth who became a leader” through his involvement in youth court. He is now entering his second year at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.

In his testimony, the first student (“Your Honor”) talked about youth  court “bringing out the activist” in him and enabling him to make changes to the Chester school environment, which is notoriously chaotic and unstructured – and experiencing more budget cuts and layoffs each year. This same young man helped lead student walk-outs from the schools to protest the poor learning environment. He described how youth court allowed students like him to actively transform school environments by working with the administration, rather than opposing it. He also described how he was seen as a role model in the chaotic schools; instead of being scorned for his disciplinarian role, younger students would watch him as a judge and say, “I want to be him when I grow up.” According to his experiences, youth court was not only a disciplinary strategy that reduced recidivism, but also a respected group that empowered members to be activists in a school with serious challenges.

Part of the recipe for change in low-income communities has to be student activism and leadership. Students must want, work toward, and expect a positive learning environment and better opportunities. Youth courts not only help reform young offenders, they also give members a hands-on education in the legal system and the confidence and power to speak for themselves and lead others. Depending on the quality and relationship between the interconnection of the educational and juvenile justice systems, a community can either become empowered to overcome poverty or further trapped in a cycle of hopelessness. Youth courts fill gaps in both systems while revitalizing the relationship between them. Although they are certainly not a panacea for poverty or even juvenile offenders, I do hope that they continue to be adopted as a mechanism for students to transform their own communities, especially in low-income areas. 


For more information on youth courts and Gregg Volz’s work, follow this link.

About the author: Kerriann Laubach is a senior at Washington and Lee University from Pittsburgh, PA majoring in Environmental Studies and Biology with a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies. This summer, she did an internship with Chester Youth Courts under Gregory Volz through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty.

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