Hon. J. Richard Couzens, Judge of the Placer County Superior Court (Ret.)

In celebration of Law Day on May 1, particularly considering the multiple stressors our society is currently facing, I want to share with you the vital importance of promoting strong civic engagement in our younger generations.

Respect for the law, rooted in the freedoms, rights and responsibilities written into the U.S. Constitution, needs revitalization – sort of a legal checkup and citizenship tune-up for our youth.

One great opportunity to give young people a positive view of our legal system is through youth court programs, currently operating in over 80 communities in California and in over 1,400 communities nationally.

The California Association of Youth Courts (CAYC) serves as a central point of contact for youth court programs across the state, delivering training and technical assistance, and developing resource materials to foster the creation of new courts and expand the operations of existing youth courts in California.

These innovative programs nurture in youth a respect for the rule of law, help develop positive citizenship attitudes, encourage civic engagement, and promote educational success through a diversity of service-learning opportunities, strategies, and activities. Youth courts are structured to provide swift interventions for low-level offenses, allowing young people to take responsibility for their own actions, to be held appropriately accountable, and to make amends to the community, in a positive and empowering environment.

In addition to imposing constructive sanctions for juvenile offenders, youth courts offer valuable civic opportunities for youth in the community. The peer-driven sentencing mechanism fosters positive peer pressure, where teens influence the behavior of other adolescents.

Youth volunteers actively learn the roles and responsibilities of the various parts of the judicial system. They act as law enforcement professionals, prosecuting and defense attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, jurors and even judges, to gain experiential knowledge of the criminal justice system.

Youth respondents and volunteers acquire valuable understanding about police and probation officers, youth services workers, and court administration, offering a path for academic and career-building opportunities.

Youth courts’ alternative sentencing results in reduced costs per case compared to the traditional justice system and in lower recidivism rates. Expanding youth courts is a cost-effective strategy for reducing juvenile delinquency while cultivating community engagement.

CAYC is affiliated with youth courts throughout California and with the National Association of Youth Courts (NAYC) at the national level. These government and community-based programs offer diversion from the traditional juvenile court system for problematic youth behaviors such as chronic truancy, delinquent actions, and other minor offenses. Youth courts are predicated on their sensitivity to the unique needs and diversity of the people they serve – the youth, their families and community partners. Relationships with existing civic, educational, law enforcement, courts and faith sector organizations currently provide the prime outreach strategies for recruitment of youth court participants and community volunteers.

CAYC seeks to develop strategic partnerships to expand existing youth courts and improve their sustainability. As a result of these partnerships, the state’s youth courts will bolster the educational and economic futures of young people, promote respect for our justice system, and foster life-long civic involvement.

Youth courts are truly “Justice For Youth By Youth.”