In (and out) of trouble
Chico Youth Court hopes to divert juveniles from the criminal justice system
Emma Clancy doesn’t think much of the traditional, isolation-based punishments American society hands down. Bad behavior gets children grounded, put in timeout or suspended from school. Crimes committed by adults are penalized with jail and prison sentences—true ostracization from the community.
For teens, particularly, that’s not a sound approach to rehabilitation, said Clancy, who’s set to earn a master’s degree in social work from Chico State in May.
“It’s really important that we give youth in our community a second chance,” she said during an interview in downtown Chico. “When they get in some kind of trouble in school or with the law, our traditional response is punitive, rather than re-engaging them in the community.”
Clancy is the only intern for a program that will take a different tack on curbing criminality: Chico Youth Court. The founding members, including progressive Chico City Councilwoman Tami Ritter and Joe Montes, a Republican candidate for Congressional District 1, believe the court will, by diverting teens from real trouble with the juvenile justice and school systems, get to the heart of long-term issues facing the community—public safety, strain on police resources, jail overcrowding and homelessness.
“The No. 1 factor determining whether someone will be incarcerated as an adult is whether they were incarcerated as a juvenile,” Ritter said by phone. “You can pretty much draw a straight line.”
“I work with homeless people, many of whom have a [criminal] record, and it usually started while they were juveniles,” Clancy added. “They were introduced to the criminal justice system pretty young.”
Chico Youth Court recently ran a few mock trials to refine the process and trained about a dozen volunteers, Ritter said. It will begin accepting referrals in April.
A little more than two years ago, when Montes came to Chico by way of Sacramento, he was considering a campaign for City Council. Looking to establish connections, he noted that, on many issues that come before the conservative-majority council, Ritter often went against the grain by casting the lone dissenting vote, which to Montes indicated that she was “a woman of principle.” Despite their political differences—Montes is staunchly conservative—he reached out to her.
At the time, Ritter was beginning to develop an “alternative dispute-resolution center” with Lyn Harrord and Barbara Lucich, fellow founding members of Chico Youth Court, but their vision was unclear. She invited Montes to their weekly meetings and found that they shared some common ground.
“We obviously have very different political affiliations, but we were able to talk about what we have in common, seeing where the overlap was,” Ritter said. “There’s a lot to be learned from hearing other people’s perspectives.”
In light of 2013’s sweeping cuts to the city’s budget and the Chico Police Department’s low staffing levels, Ritter and Montes agreed on the need to conserve police resources. Both also wanted to help youth. As a teen, Montes was a serial troublemaker who benefited from the intervention of a responsible adult. Ritter, on the other hand, worked with at-risk youth during her graduate studies on restorative practices.
Ritter’s background helped shape the developing program. “The premise [of restorative practices] is that people are more cooperative, more productive and more willing to make positive change when people who are in positions of authority do things with them rather than to them—or for them,” Ritter explained.
After studying examples in other cities, the group decided on the youth court model, in which an individual’s peers determine his or her sentence for minor delinquent offenses. They then put together an advisory board, including local experts in various fields, and became a special program of the North Valley Community Foundation. Chico Youth Court will operate out of the NVCF office on Main Street.
Here’s how it will work: First-time offenders will be referred by police, Chico Unified School District or Butte County Juvenile Probation. An intake process involving a parent or legal guardian will lay out the program’s methods and expectations. The youth can always opt out and be referred back to the agency handling disciplinary action.
The kids will then go through a series of classes covering basic life skills, drug and sex education, how to apply for and keep jobs, financial responsibility and criminality, Ritter said. “They’re things we expect high school students to know but never really train them on.”
What comes next is decided by input from volunteer case managers as well as the people in the program. It could be a simple conference with facilitators, a discussion with peers or appearing in court. In youth court, Montes explained, the individual has already admitted wrongdoing, so the process is more like “sentencing with an explanation.” After a few trial runs, the founding members decided that the judge will sit at the table, rather than a bench, to avoid intimidation. “People may be more inclined to give their stories,” Montes said. “It’s a less threatening environment.”
The sentences will be based around community service and restorative practices, Clancy said. “We’ll help youth see the harm caused by their actions—and to assume accountability,” she said. “‘We say, ‘Yeah, what you did wasn’t the best choice, but let’s fix this and move on. Rejoin your class or rejoin your community.’”
The entire program should take about 90 days, Ritter said, but its scope won’t become apparent for much longer.
“Maybe we aren’t going to see the results of this program for a couple years, when these kids go on to lead meaningful lives and pursue opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” Ritter said. “We want to have a long-term vision, keep kids out of the juvenile justice system so we can keep adults out of the criminal justice system.”