“All rise,” called the bailiff. “The Honorable Judge Nikkia presiding.”
A black-robed judge strode to the front of a courtroom in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. There an American flag stood motionless and a wooden gavel sat at arms’ reach. “Welcome,” said the judge on a Tuesday evening in June. “Please turn off your cell phones. If you have any gum or candy, please dispose of it at this time.”
So commenced the fifth week of hearings by the Brownsville Youth Court. The court, a project of the Center for Court Innovation, is a new attempt to deal with old realities: young people are responsible for much of the crime that plagues the East Brooklyn neighborhood and traditional forms of juvenile justice have failed to prevent high rates of recidivism.
The court trains teenagers from Brownsville and surrounding neighborhoods to serve as judges, jurors and advocates. During their six-month term, members hear cases of other young people who have committed low-level offenses such as vandalism, robbery, assault and truancy.
The court does not assess guilt or innocence; instead it recommends sanctions designed to help offenders improve themselves and their standing in the community. Its ultimate goal is to ensure that young people avoid future involvement in the justice system.
The first defendant, called a respondent in youth court, was 15-year-old Shauna. (As a rule of the court, last names are kept confidential; offenders are are minors and court members fear retaliation.) After swearing in the teenage girl, a community advocate (prosecutor) and youth advocate (defense attorney) read their opening statements. Then Judge Nikkia turned proceedings over to the eight-member jury.
“How ya doin’ today?” a member of the jury asked Shauna, who had been arrested for assault and harassment.
Shauna looked surprised. She spoke softly, twirling the heart-shaped pendant on her necklace as she described the fight that broke out in her school’s locker room with a girl who was “messing with my boyfriend.”
What were you thinking about when you went into the locker room, asked another juror.
“I wasn’t thinking at the moment,” said Shauna. “I was just mad.”
In a period of overall crime reduction in New York City, Brownsville stands out as a glaring exception to the rule. Here, crime rates are going up and a growing number of offenders are in their teens. In 2009, police made nearly 4,500 arrests of young people (ages 8 to 24) in the neighborhood with a total youth population of almost 13,000.
Rates of youth imprisonment in Brownsville are among the highest in the city: one out of every 12 males, ages 16 to 24, serves time in jail compared to one out of every 25 males borough-wide. Arrest data from the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services suggests that youth arrests will increase by five percent this year.
Experts and residents alike blame gang activity and easy access to guns for the rising murder rate in the neighborhood. In the first quarter of this year, the 73rd Precinct reported an 80 percent increase in homicides compared to 2010. Though it houses only 1.4 percent of the city’s population, Brownsville was the source of 5.7 percent of shooting incidents and 5.8 percent of victims in 2010.
While young people are increasingly likely to be involved in violent crimes, they are also being arrested for more misdemeanors like robbery, trespassing, disorderly conduct and drug possession.
Highlighting the scale of the problem here, Brownsville is home to Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center, one of two juvenile detention facilities in New York City. While not everyone detained at Crossroads is from Brownsville, the facility houses many who are.
New York City’s juvenile justice system is ineffective, said James Brodick, project director of the Brownsville Community Justice Center, because it’s too large. “In a downtown court, the judge is like the Wizard of Oz. They come out, render a decision and you never see them again.” Young people get lost in the system, Brodick said. While they may serve sentences, few steps are taken to address the circumstances that led to the crime in the first place.
“A lot of kids start off with low-level offenses, but nothing is done to figure out why they do what they do,” said Turquoise Young, adult program coordinator of the Brownsville Youth Court. “We try to come up with solutions to keep kids from further involvement with the justice system.”
This approach, called restorative justice, aims to involve victims and communities more broadly in the criminal justice system and it is the guiding philosophy behind much of the Center for Court Innovation’s work.
The center, founded as a public/private partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York, runs community justice centers in Red Hook and Harlem and a total of five youth courts in New York and New Jersey.
The Brownsville Youth Court is the precursor to the establishment of a Brownsville Community Justice Center, which will focus largely on offering diversions, services and support for young people in the neighborhood.
“At a community justice center,” said Brodick, “we deal with a small geographical area in which all the parties know each other. The judge knows the police captains, who know the district attorneys, who know the community.” With better information-sharing – and a court, community programs and social services all under one roof – individual solutions can be crafted that address the root causes of youth crime. That, Brodick said, is what it takes to reduce recidivism.
Members of the Brownsville Youth Court received intensive preparation, including 30 hours of training on critical thinking, active listening, precision questioning and youth court protocols.
“It’s scary for me, knowing that I have the power and the ability to effect somebody’s future,” said Nikkia, who is 17. “It made me realize that I can’t try to change somebody else’s life if I don’t try to change my life for the better.”
During hearings, the jury peppered respondents with questions about their crimes in an effort to understand not only what happened but why. Why did you fight? Who are your role models? Are you a role model to anyone? What do you want to be when you grow up? Do you know what steps to take to get there? Their questions aimed to identify the root causes of delinquency, sources of support, areas for personal improvement and positive attributes that young people can build upon.
Recommended sanctions include letters of apology, community service, and skill-building workshops on topics like anger management, peer pressure or conflict resolution. According to Brodick, 90 percent of respondents in youth courts complete their sanctions as mandated. Successful completion of sanctions usually results in resolution of the case by the referring agency and young people’s records are kept clean.
Officers at the New York City Department of Probation have sent the Brownsville Youth Court most of its cases so far. Others are expected to come from the 73rd Precinct of the New York City Police Department in Brownsville, Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes’s office, and Family and Criminal Courts.
Karen Jackson, a probation officer in Brooklyn, said that of the 40 or so juvenile offenders she has referred to the youth court since it opened in May, only one has been re-arrested.
The success of the court will depend in part on buy-in from local authorities. Samuel Wright, inspector of the Police Department’s 73rd Precinct, swore in members of the first Brownsville Youth Court during their induction ceremony. Philip Banks, chief of community affairs and the highest-ranking African-American in the NYPD, delivered the keynote address.
“Best thing I’ve ever seen in action,” said Mary Hughes, an assistant district attorney, of the youth court.
The Brownsville Youth Court is scheduled to hear eight cases per week. Experiences vary, but Jackson said that most young offenders are grateful for the opportunity to be judged by their peers.
“It was nerve-wracking, but they’re the same age as me so they understand me and where I’m coming from,” said Shauna, whom the jury recommended for mandatory attendance at a conflict-resolution workshop. “They made me think I shouldn’t have done what I did. But an adult would have been more down my back than the kids.”
Another respondent, 13-year-old Joseph, was referred to the youth court after assaulting a peer who disparaged his mother in the schoolyard one morning. “I was really scared ‘cause I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Joseph. “But it wasn’t like what you see on TV. No one was screaming at me.”
Instead, Joseph said, members of the youth court explained to him that rather than fighting, he should have “gone inside, ate breakfast and stayed there.” Then nothing would have happened, said Joseph.
When the day’s cases had been heard, Judge Nikkia’s gavel sounded a hollow knock. Her legs, too short to reach the ground, stopped swinging. “Court is adjourned.”