A simple mission with profound implications for Anchorage youth. The Anchorage Youth Court (AYC) offers the ability for youth to receive training and gain a deeper understanding of our judicial system while helping their peers resolve legal problems.
“Justice for youth by youth.”
AYC is a juvenile justice system that immerses students in the judicial system. After receiving training and passing a bar exam, youths handle misdemeanor cases, primarily concerning shoplifting and marijuana, involving minors. The cases they handle are carefully referred by the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice. Once selected youth who have committed misdemeanors appear in a courtroom run entirely by their peers. The AYC courtroom focuses more on rehabilitation than punishing offenders.
“We are not punishing people, we are making them better,” Sam Hall, a senior from Chugiak High School, says. “These are just kids who have made mistakes.”
What makes the AYC unique from other youth courts is the level of leadership students take in the proceedings.
Instead of merely observing or serving in a limited capacity, like in many other youth court programs, AYC empowers its students to hold all positions in the courtroom.
The program serves not only as an opportunity to give youth an insider’s perspective of the judicial system; it also gives the community a valuable tool in intervening in students’ lives and provides the community a comprehensive alternative justice system for youth. It gives youth who have run afoul of the law to resolve their legal problems without acquiring a formal juvenile record.
AYC provides a verdict to the Referring Authority for final disposition. If found guilty, and the defendant completes his/her sentence and does not break the law again then the Referring Authority will close their file, and they receive no formal record of the incident.
The perspectives of youth are also an asset in the courtroom for such cases.
Rebecca Koford, the executive director of AYC and an attorney by training, says, “They [volunteering students] come up with questions that adults either assume they should know the answer to or don’t want to ask. But, the teens will ask those questions. I think that’s great. I love that. It keeps us moving forward and doing good work.”
“I love that it’s youth-run,” Koford says. “It’s peer-to-peer, and we train teens to be judges and to handle real cases in front of their peers.” In this program, the students learn to be advocates for others. Koford continues. “If a teen says to another teen that ‘this is not acceptable,’ it carries a lot of weight because teens do not usually do that.”
Students in grades 7-12 grade can participate in AYC.
After attending and graduating from the class then passing a bar exam, students are given increasingly challenging roles; starting as a bailiff, then an attorney/prosecutor and finally as a judge. Each role presents new challenges and expectations that the students must navigate.
AYC facilitates monthly bar meetings for its students during which they learn from current professionals working in the judicial system.
Students take what they learn from these frank discussions and apply the lessons when they undertake new roles for AYC.
Sam Hall started as a bailiff in 2014 and over the years has stepped into a key leadership role as a judge. In this capacity, he must use a high level of care and impartiality when rendering sentences.
Hall says, “I have enjoyed being a judge the most because of the discretion I can have,” whereas attorneys and prosecutors are restricted to what they can and cannot say.
Hall is undecided about his career aspirations, but he is interested in law and government. Regardless his future, AYC has equipped him with a strong set of skills – public speaking, critical thinking, and persuasion.
“There’s also the preparation and studying as you go through the cases where you have to find the information you can put forward in your case,” he explains. “I have to think about what I’m going to say and organize it. Also, being a judge, I have gotten better at critical thinking skills about philosophical questions.”
“You are getting up in front of a group of peers, speaking and trying to be persuasive in your delivery,” Hall says. “It’s hard at first, but it’s less difficult now. Now, mostly the difficult part is making the right decision as a judge. Peoples’ sentences are in my hands, and I want to be as unbiased, fair, and just as I can.”
Students of all backgrounds and interests are encouraged to join AYC.
Though students can earn school credit for their time spent at the AYC, Rebecca prefers students to be involved because they are passionate about helping people and not just to fulfill school credit requirements.
The defendants who go through the AYC program often learn from their mistakes as a result of the program. Rebecca says that one of the best examples of the AYC method succeeding is when defendants realize that they were heavily influenced by peer pressure to commit misdemeanors and that they made a bad decision.
Rebecca loves what she does, especially when defendants or their parents thank her. Also, she enjoys seeing the students volunteering in the courts learning and growing in confidence as their roles expand.
The real reason that Hall believes that AYC is such a valuable use of his time is that he gets the opportunity to help peers his age correct their mistakes and become better citizens.
“The most rewarding thing about AYC is the difference you can make in peoples’ lives,” Hall says. “We focus on rehabilitation. Seeing someone go through a change who you know is a good kid who made a mistake is a great feeling. You’re giving them that second chance.”
For more information on how to be a part of the Anchorage Youth Court: anchorageyouthcourt.org
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker