By TIFFANY TERR
A door opens and the bailiff escorts a 15-year-old boy into the court room. He is led to the bench, where three robed judges wait to hear the prosecution read the police report in which the youth was charged. The youth then answers the judges’ questions about motivation and intent before being sentenced to any number of programs designed to help the young offender turn his life around. His court appearance lasts a little over 7 minutes, and the charges never appear on his permanent record.
While this incident may sound like a proceeding in juvenile court, it is not. The bailiff is a 14-year-old girl, and the ages of the judges range from 18 to 23. This is Youth Court, one of the newest and highly respected programs that American Fork has implemented to help deter the criminal offenses of the city’s youth.
Youth Court is the central element of American Fork’s youth programs. It is an extension of the City Youth Council, which works in cooperation with American Fork’s city council. The Youth Council is involved in many community-enhancing projects, and the Youth Court was designed for kids to reach out to others their age.
Implemented in 1992, the Youth Court has been recognized nationally, and 25 cities around the country are trying to design and launch similar programs using American Fork as a guide.
“We have one of the best youth programs in the entire West — better than most big cities,” said Officer Rick Bockman, who runs and is responsible for most of the programs in the city.
The Youth Court experience begins when a juvenile is cited for any criminal offense. The officer then decides if the offense is serious enough to warrant juvenile court, or whether the person deserves the option of clearing his or her record in Youth Court. If he or she fails to comply with the Youth Court, the case is turned over to juvenile court, the offense appears on their permanent record and the sentence is increased.
After the individual is cited, kids who work with the Youth Court put the information from the police report into the computer. A regular summons — in the form of a letter — is sent to the individual with their assigned court date. The court tries about 10 to 20 cases during its Thursday night sessions.
Sentencing is based on the individual’s truthfulness, his or her attitude and the severity of the case. Sentencing may include between three and 100 hours of community service, truancy school, tobacco school or Scare Straight — a program that requires participants to spend several hours at the state penitentiary talking to life-term inmates about their experiences.
The judges assign the individual their public service and give them a form showing what they need to do. The individual pays a $20 court fee and works three hours a week at the Youth Court’s work projects until they complete the sentence.
Juveniles can be sent to youth court for a number of offenses including truancy, alcohol and tobacco use, theft, vandalism, domestic violence and other forms of criminal mischief.
While reported crimes in American Fork increase every year as a result of the population influx, Bockman says the programs have been successful with the recidivism rate at less than 10 percent.
One of the largest problems that the Youth Court is trying to address is the truancy problem at American Fork High School. With more than 2,000 students, it is hard to take a personal interest in each student and try to keep them motivated — the school sentences as many as 600 truancies a day.
“More than half of those who are truant are doing other crimes,” Bockman said. “Truancy leads to idleness and contributes to criminal activities.”
Truancy school was created to help students who have had repeated problems with truancy and is usually part of the sentence Youth Court hands down in such cases. Offenders are either caught by the police or are referred to the police by the school on the individual’s sixth offense.
Truancy school has been so successful that the Alpine School District has adopted the program, and other districts are looking to use it as well.
Glen Clark, principal at American Fork High School, values the Truancy School program as a middle-of-the-road option for those who need a push in the right direction.
“Reports I’ve heard are positive,” Clark said. “It depends on how far down the road the student and their mistakes are. But it’s something that we are going to continue with, work with and expand.”
Other programs designed and run by the Youth Court include Tobacco School, the Alcohol Education Program and the Neighborhood Watch program.
The Tobacco School is a two-hour class that addresses the criminality of illicit alcohol, covers alcohol education, and uses materials from graphic accident videos where kids have been killed while drinking and driving.
The Alcohol Education program is aimed at those who sell alcohol in their establishments.
“We had a real problem with kids buying alcohol — over 600 related arrests,” Bockman said.
To determine the scope of the problem, the American Fork Police Department designed a sting operation in which a 17-year-old boy went to 10 different merchants in town and bought alcohol at every place. The purpose of the sting was not to take action and make arrests but to determine the scope of the problem.
The Alcohol Education program — a two-hour class — was designed to train employees to check for fake identification and inform them about the seriousness of the problem with the same graphic videos used in Tobacco school.
A post-education sting was then attempted by the police department, using the same 17-year-old boy. Ninety percent of the places turned him away, and the employee at the establishment who allowed him to purchase alcohol was put on suspension. With such a high success rate, other cities including Price, Spanish Fork and Murray, want the Alcohol Education Program implemented in their own communities.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Youth Court program is the effect it has on those who are participants and volunteers.
Shelly Greene, a 17-year-old junior at American Fork High School, has been the Youth Court’s community service supervisor for six months. She became the supervisor at Bockman’s request, after completing her own service hours for truancy.
“I haven’t really changed my life,” Greene said. “But it did me good and helped me understand that it’s important to go to school to get a good future job.”
Greene is responsible for overseeing the service projects individuals are assigned to as part of their sentencing. Many of those she supervises are kids her own age.
“It’s a good thing and works good for the ones that care about it,” Greene said. “The ones who don’t care about it — there is nothing you can do.”
Herrick Muhlstein, 18, served as a bailiff in Youth Court before becoming a judge — a position he’s had for the past four years. While some people might question the effectiveness of a peer review court system, Muhlstein sees the Youth Court experience as especially effective because of that very fact.
“We are their same age — they can identify with a guy their own age telling them that this is dumb,” Muhlstein said. “A lot of it is embarrassing for them — some male egos are really hurt by women judges.”
The real reward for Muhlstein and other Youth Court volunteers is seeing how their actions are affecting people’s lives — like the 8-year-old boy who had shot his father’s pistol and was sent to talk to Gun Safety Administration, or the young man whose personal life, messed up with drugs and violence, was turned around after weeks of counseling and follow-up letters.
“It feels good to know that someone has re-evaluated their conduct because of something I had done,” Muhlstein said. “The success is well worth the time and effort.”
And a lot of time and effort is required of those who participate in the Youth Court program. Volunteers spend anywhere between 150 and 350 hours each year keeping the system running. Volunteers do data entry and travel to different locations for peer counseling as well service projects. American Fork High School is recognizing these service hours by giving school credit in the areas of social studies and practical arts.
The partnership between the high school, the American Fork Police Department and Youth Court has created a system that really supports and cares about the youth of the city.
“We have a community that is willing to work with the kids — they don’t try to wash their hands of them through the juvenile court system,” Clark said.