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Kids redeem themselves at 105th Youth Court

The victim's mother pressed charges with the 105th Police Precinct, but thanks to a special program run by the 105th, the teenager was tried by his peers, found guilty and sentenced to 20 hours of community service instead of receiving a stain on his record or being sent to Family Court.

"That was just a mistake," the boy said of the attack. "That's not who I'm going to become."

The 105th's program, known as Youth Court, gives children ages 11 to 15 who are charged with minor offenses a chance at reflection and redemption. Currently, three juveniles, one accused of robbing a school store and two accused of making physical contact with a school security guard, are before the court. Their cases will be heard May 11, but those in charge of the program asked that no current or past defendants be identified.

The Youth Court also teaches high school volunteers and some of the former defendants how to serve as lawyers, judges and bailiffs and takes members of the 105th's Explorers Program to serve in the jury.

Ruth Maxwell, a community advocate from Queens Village, founded the program seven years ago after watching a TV show about a youth court in Texas. After a year spent getting permission from police headquarters and from Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, the court was set up, following similar models already in use in Albany, Yonkers and Red Hook. The program is currently the only one in Queens, but Maxwell said the other precincts in Queens Patrol Borough South will soon send suspects to her court. The 105th Precinct stretches from Glen Oaks in the north along the Nassau border to Brookville in the south.

Normally juveniles charged with minor offenses go before Family Court and receive a mark on their record. Although the record is kept confidential by the precinct and destroyed when the offender turns 16, those involved with the Youth Court said the process very often does not make an impact on the juvenile.

"Being in a filing cabinet in the precinct doesn't affect the kid," said Peo Kirkland, a youth officer at the 105th Precinct involved with the program since its inception. "Youth Court allows the kid to answer for his actions."

Each defendant is only allowed to go through the program once, and those who do not cooperate are sent back to Family Court to have their fate determined. Maxwell said she has only had to do so once.

At the Youth Court, trials are held roughly once a month in a real courtroom at State Supreme Court, with three cases heard during each trial. High school students volunteer to fill the roles of bailiff, judge, jury, and defense and prosecuting attorneys, with 15 currently in the program, two of whom are former defendants. The defendants found guilty are sentenced to community service, during part of which they must help the court.

The court functions like a real one, complete with jury notices sent in the mail and the lawyers taking an oath of confidentiality.

Before the trial, two private hearings are held, one for the prosecution to plan its case and one for the defense to speak with the defendant and the defendant's parents. Professional lawyers and undergraduates from St. John's University advise the high school volunteers, who must first go through a rigorous 12-week training session of Tuesday night practices.

Maxwell said not all volunteers made it through the process, which they are only allowed to try once.

"You have to realize you have a young person's life in your hand," she said.

On the night of April 20, Jesse Sligh, Queens executive assistant district attorney, taught prospective lawyers how to put together a prosecution, with Gould's Criminal Law Handbook at his side. "This is not television, this is not 'Matlock,'" he told the students, explaining that a trial unfolds in a very predictable and orderly way. "You've got to build your case step by step so all the holes are filled in."

Next door Michael Yavinsky, the chief attorney with the city's Criminal Court system, sat with Durgaesh Singh, a Queens Village teenager who attends Bayside High School and who volunteers for the Youth Court. Yavinsky said he was impressed with how seriously the trainees took their duties and said the program filled a vital role. When he worked at State Supreme Court as a defense lawyer, he said he and his colleagues "wished we could show them a reason earlier in life not to go down a negative path."

He added, "Sometimes you get through to them, sometimes you don't. If they don't let us, then we can't."

The student who got in the fight was one of the teens who was reached. "It kept me out of trouble - I know I'll never do anything like that again," he said.

As for others, he said, "there's no one solution to everybody's problem. Some are remorseful, some take it as a joke. I feel it works for the most part."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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