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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
Six Ketchikan Youth Court students met for their first class on the evening of Feb. 11, in the upstairs Youth Court office at The Plaza mall, and spent about an hour listening attentively to Superior Court Trevor Stephens and Ketchikan Gateway Borough Attorney and KYC Executive Director Glenn Brown.
“This class is like a math class, or a science class,” Stephens told the group in his introduction. “Everything builds on what came before.”
Brown handed the 119-page syllabus for the nine-week course to the students as Stephens introduced them to the Youth Court’s mission of restorative justice.
Listed in the table of contents are topics such as the structure of the legal system, the definition of a crime, preparing a probable cause statement, the roles of the attorneys and judges, victim impact, rules of conduct, how to interview a client and delivering sentencing.
Students can join Youth Court starting in sixth grade.
“Have any of you ever stepped in a courtroom?” Stephens asked them.
One student raised his hand.
Stephens then walked them through a courtroom’s structure, describing the pews for attendees to sit on, the tables for the clients and attorneys, and the “bar,” that separates the audience from the people involved in the case and the judge.
He said that, as working Youth Court members, they will have a jump on the legal system that even he didn’t have as a law student. He said he had never been inside a courtroom before that time.
Stephens talked to the students about what it’s like to become a lawyer or judge, describing law school as having a unique component, in that college students don’t have to decide, the “second they step foot onto campus” whether they want to eventually apply for law school.
“My dream is still to have one of the kids who have done this come back to practice in Ketchikan,” he said. “Hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully it will. I only have a couple of years left.”
He then described the role of the nine Youth Court groups in Alaska.
“In Youth Court, at least in Ketchikan and most of the places in the state, you don’t do trials,” Stephens explained. “The cases you get are young people charged with real crimes, that have agreed to plead guilty, then they’re turned in to Youth Court and so, once they’re in Youth Court, you will be defense lawyers, you’ll be the prosecutors, you’ll be the judges for an actual court hearing.”
He also explained to the students the difference between the roles of the defense attorneys, who represent the clients; the prosecutors, who represent the state; and the judges, who do not represent anybody.
Stephens described how he sees his role as a judge.
“I’m just there to make sure the rules are followed, and that everything proceeds fairly,” he said. “That’s my role.”
He also walked the students through the levels of local, state and federal government; the differences between district and superior courts; the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies, and the differences between civil and criminal proceedings.
Brown explained that the cases are referred to Youth Court by the district court, juvenile probation and sometimes from the resource police officer at Ketchikan High School.
The cover of the class manual explains some of the benefits of the Youth Court program.
“Members receive valuable legal education from attorneys, judges, and legal professionals, participate in real cases, build partnerships and create positive change in our community. Members also gain skills in leadership, public speaking, professional behavior, committee participation, and many other useful skills and knowledge,” the manual reads.
Stephens also said that they would be taking a 13- to 14-page bar exam, but assured them that “every single one of you will pass.” He added that he never, in the 15 or 16 classes he has taught, has had a student fail to pass the Youth Court bar exam.
After passing the bar exam, students are inducted in a ceremony, and are then allowed to start working on cases. Each case is heard by two prosecutors, two defense attorneys and a three-judge panel, Stephens explained. The Youth Court members start working as lawyers, and with experience, they begin working as judges.
When a Youth Court client is interviewed, a meeting is set up in a private area of the Youth Court office, Brown said. The interview is thorough, and the aim is to get as much information about the client as possible, to present a full picture to the judges.
“When a defense attorney is representing someone,” Brown said, “they really want to paint a picture to the court of the whole person — not just a kid who made a mistake and made a bad decision. You want to let them (the court) know more about them.
Brown continued, giving examples of the type of information defense attorneys should look for: “What kind of things do they like in school? What kind of hobbies do they have? Who do they live with?”
He also explained that when the judges make decisions about sentencing, these personal facts are important.
“Is this something that kind of sticks out as really unusual for them?” Brown said might be one facet of the judge’s thinking. “Or, is this a kid that’s not really tied in — doesn’t have a lot of extracurricular activity — they get the sense that they’re in with a bad crowd.”
Student Kyan Scudero was curious where the line might be in the case of a client that a Youth Court defense attorney might know socially.
“Say that you know that person, and like, can you say that you’ve hung out with them, and I know what they’re like?” he asked.
Brown answered that in that case, the member would be allowed to defend or prosecute the client, but members who are involved with a client socially wouldn’t be allowed to take the role of judge. He also added that a member can refuse a case, due to ties to clients.
Stephens then advised the students on their serious responsibilities as a Youth Court member.
“All these proceedings are secret,” he said. “You can’t talk about it with anybody. You can’t talk about it with your mom, can’t talk about it with your boyfriend, can’t talk about it with your best friend. Can’t talk about it with anybody else in Youth Court unless they’re involved with that case. And, you can’t talk to me about any case. Any real case. And, I can’t go in and watch any of your cases.”
Brown added that as part of working in Youth Court, there will be other unique pressures.
“These are kids you’ll see in school. You’ll see them out and about in town,” he said. “It’s kind of an unusual feeling to be sitting where you were in a secret proceeding with them — you know about their case and they know you know about their case, but you guys don’t talk about it. It’s all confidential, and we take that seriously.”
Brown also told the students about the standards of behavior that Youth Court expects from its members.
“The people who get sworn in and are Youth Court members are held to a different standard,” he said. “So, how you carry yourselves, how you conduct yourselves — it’s important that you represent Youth Court well, and you can’t be the kids that are getting in trouble if you’re going to be judging some kids who have gotten into trouble.”
Student Josiah Shaw asked what types of crimes the typical client would have committed, and Brown answered that mostly they are minor consuming, shoplifting, driving without a license, marijuana possession and consuming alcohol before driving.
He also said that their caseload gets busier during the school year.
KYC upholds a policy of allowing clients as old as 18, as long as they still are enrolled in high school.
Brown explained the Youth Court approach of using restorative justice, in which the aim is to get the client and the victim — if there was one — back to the point he or she was before the misdemeanor was committed.
“When they come to Youth Court, a big part of their sentence will be community service, because when you commit a lot of offenses — you know if you drink alcohol as a minor, the only real victim is you, what you’ve done to yourself — but you’ve violated the community’s sense of what’s proper and what’s not. Brown explained, “So, you have to make good for that.
“How do you do that? Well, you pay the community back somehow. You do some community service, you volunteer somewhere.”
He said that many former clients have volunteered at the animal shelter, or the Rendezvous thrift shop as part of their restitution.
Brown said there is a strong learning aspect to sentencings as well.
“There’s always an educational component,” Brown said.
Sometimes part of a sentence will include an assignment to create a poster or to write an essay about the bad effects of alcohol on youth.
“You want them thinking about the offense and what the longer-term implications are,” he said, adding that they aim to get young people, while carrying out their sentence to ask such questions as, “What else does it mean? What does it make you more susceptible to? What does it lead to?”
Brown also told the Youth Court students, of their clients, “We want to get them back to the point that they were at before the offense happened, so it’s kind of a clean slate.”
The many years that Youth Court has functioned in Ketchikan have created many opportunities for young people, Brown told the students. He mentioned that Austin Otos, who now works as a Youth Court assistant, is an alumni who graduated from a Youth Court class about 13 years ago. He said, also, that many alumni now work in government in Ketchikan, in Juneau in the state Legislature and various governmental departments.
Josiah Shaw, attending Monday’s class, said that taking the class also has a historical component for him, which was a big part of why he wanted to join.
“Mainly because both of my brothers have done it, and it’s kind of a family tradition,” he said.
Ketchikan Youth Court members plan to travel to the United Youth Courts of Alaska conference, which will be held in Valdez from May 3 to May 5.