In Nashville’s youth courts, a true jury of peers

In a classroom at Whites Creek High School, wooden benches have replaced the desks. When the bell chimes, students file into 12 plastic chairs to face a judge.

On a recent morning, the volunteer in the black robe was attorney Yvette Cain.

“Do you solemnly swear or affirm to listen carefully to the evidence presented in arguments presented today, and fulfill your duty to determine a sentence that’s fair to the victim and to the respondent and the community? If so, say ‘I do,’ and you may be seated,” Cain said, sitting below a state seal flanked by the U.S. and Tennessee flags.

“I do,” 12 voices responded.

This is the youth court program at Whites Creek, one of five schools in Nashville that has an arm of the statewide reform and prevention program.

Students at the schools who commit minor crimes can be sent to youth court instead of juvenile court downtown, where they would face a judge and not a jury. In youth courts in Nashville, they face classmates filling the roles of attorneys and jurors.

The rulings of the student jury are real and go on the record.

Not only do the programs take cases off the docket at juvenile court, they also give teens a chance to explore career paths in criminal justice.

Denise Bentley, director of Tennessee’s Youth Court Program, said 17 counties have active youth courts or are starting them. The program is an arm of the Tennessee Bar Association. Davidson County’s courts have been ongoing since 2011.

More than 2,000 Tennessee students participate in the programs statewide each year, and they handle 350 to 400 cases annually, Bentley said.

“According to research, a child who goes to juvenile court for one of these first offenses has an 18 to 40 percent likelihood of coming back on another charge,” Bentley said. “The way I used to talk about it when I was in school security here in Metro Schools was, kids leave the (juvenile) court thinking they’re 10-foot-tall and bulletproof. When they leave here, because these young people have taken the time to really address the situation and the cause of the situation, fewer than 4 percent of kids reoffend after going through youth court.”

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