Students across Alaska gather in Kodiak for Youth Court training conference. Kayla Desroches/KMXT
The United Youth Courts of Alaska is notable for encouraging youth leadership in the legal system and students’ own communities. Branches from across Alaska flew into Kodiak last Thursday for the 20th Annual United Youth Courts of Alaska Conference.
In Alaska, some minors may face their classmates when being sentenced for misdemeanors and crimes. Youth Court students train as attorneys, bailiffs, and judges in order to issue sentences to fellow students who have committed either status offenses, like possession of tobacco, or crimes like theft. Deborah Bitanga is a senior at Kodiak High School and the vice president of the Kodiak Teen Court Bar and the board.
She says community service is one possible sentence.
“We also give them essays, and some creative ones is creating a powerpoint or doing a research about the negative affects of a marijuana or other drugs with the body," says Bitanga. "Like, for stealing, we could research on how stealing could affect the economy of the town or something like that.”
Youth Court students learn about creative sentencing as part of their training at the Annual Youth Court Conference. They fly to a different location every year, and this time they chose Kodiak.
Students meet for two whole days of speeches and forums designed to inform and educate them about the court system and the young people they sentence.
Among the forums this year are “The Youth Brain,” “Creative Sentence” and “Restorative Justice.”
Darlene Turner is the program manager for Kodiak Teen Court. She says that the key phrase is “restorative” justice as opposed to punitive justice.
“There’s not just the consequences but competency development so that the person is being educated. Not just them, but their parents," says Turner.
She says youth attorneys communicate with the off enders’ families. One of the forums this year is “Parenting with Love and Limits,” where students learn how to speak with families and suggest solutions like a counseling program.
One of the vital skills Youth Court members take away from lectures is a fine tuned understanding of the offenders and their situations.
And Turner says that it’s very appropriate for young people to sentence their peers.
“Youth listen to youth much better. They speak to each other better," says Turner. "So a lot of times a youth offender will certainly talk to their attorneys and tell them things that they would never tell you or me.”
Turner says that students also learn to be leaders.
“The more you empower a youth to do something, the more they achieve.”
The Youth Court changes the students on both sides of the case. Eli Heinrich from Kenai is in his fourth year of Youth Court. He says that the greatest benefit is the affect the Court has on the young offenders.
"It’s kind of a system that gives kids a second chance with the record and the effects of what they’ve done wrong," says Heinrich. "Which is probably the best aspect of youth court. It keeps them out of the adult court, it keeps the misdemeanor off the record.”
Youth Court students had a chance to exchange those thoughts at this weekend’s Conference. Madison Stites from Fairbanks is in 8th grade and has been training for Youth Court for five months.
“The conference is for all of us to come together and see what our experiences are together and how we can improve all of this and make our youth system better," says Stites.
The conference concluded on Saturday night and the visiting Youth Court groups flew back on Sunday.