The door opens and light floods the courtroom. The people fall silent and rise from their seats as the bailiff announces the bewildered defendant’s arrival. Hearts pound as the criminal and his defense attorneys make their way to the front of the bench. There, the judge and his clerk await. It is Saturday morning, and the Amherst Youth Court is in session.
On every third Saturday of the month, nearly 50 high school students from the five public high schools in Amherst oversee youth sentencing trials. After a youth offender in the Town of Amherst is caught and admits guilt, he or she is sent to the Amherst Youth Court, an alternative to Family Court, where sentences become part of one’s permanent record forever. Instead, the AYC hopes to give youthful offenders a second chance. Offenders under age 16 can admit guilt and attend a session of AYC rather than Family Court for a variety of offenses, including shoplifting, harassment, vandalism, minor drug offenses and minor assaults. At the Amherst Youth Court, the offender will still experience a real courtroom and be sentenced to up to 30 hours of community service through the Amherst Youth Engaged in Service program. It is the hope of the AYC and the Amherst Police Department that an appearance in youth court will prevent the illegal behavior from continuing.
Although the AYC is run primarily by students, AYC members are anything but inexperienced. Before becoming members, students from Sweet Home, Amherst and Williamsville North, East and South high schools must undergo a selective application and interview process run by existing members. After being accepted into the program, new members must complete several summer training sessions, including numerous mock trials based on real trials. Through these sessions, members learn about criminal punishments, mitigating circumstances and the history of the AYC.
During trials, AYC members act as bailiffs, clerks, defense attorneys and prosecutors. Even though members don’t receive any monetary compensation for their efforts, these “court officials” receive many intangible benefits for their service. In addition to gaining knowledge about the court system, members feel that they are encouraging self-improvement and respect among their peers.
“I enjoy working with police officers, judges and other members of the court,” said Amherst Youth Court member Sam Stanford. “I really feel that I am making a difference in people’s lives.”
The Amherst Youth Court isn’t exactly one of a kind. In fact, the Grand Island and City of Buffalo communities also have youth courts. Hoping to further expand the youth court’s mission, the AYC recently hosted representatives from the Clarence community that observed the youth court’s regular proceedings. Judge Michael Powers, Youth Bureau Coordinator Dawn Kinney and Clarence High School teacher Krista Shrader are hoping to implement the AYC policies and start a youth court in the Town of Clarence.
Shrader, adviser of the Face to Face and Reach Out clubs at the high school, was especially impressed with the AYC’s work. She said she hopes to “set offenders on the right path” and also wants to help the offender’s family “move past the incident with the help of numerous agencies and tools.” She is hoping to have a youth court in Clarence by September.
Anyone interested in joining the AYC should consider attending “Law Day,” one day each spring where the youth court is open to the public. During the AYC’s “Law Day,” members talk to visitors about the court and its mission to give offenders a second chance and to prevent more crime. Also, numerous mock trials are performed.
“So many people are unaware of the great things we do because we are usually closed to the public,” said one AYC prosecutor. “ ‘Law Day’ is the best way to show people that getting up early one day a month can change someone’s life.”
For more information about the AYC, contact the Amherst Police Department.
Cari Hurley is a junior at Williamsville North High School.