About 120 students from all across Alaska converged on downtown Juneau this weekend to learn more about law and politics during an annual conference of teen courts.
“The conference is a chance for kids from all around Alaska to get together and hear how other courts do things,” said conference coordinator Madi Nolan. “This is a place where they can cross share ideas. We have probation officers from different courts coming together who talk about referrals they send to youth court.”
Nolan said there are 12 youth courts in Alaska and 1,200 nationwide.
The students spent Thursday meeting legislators. They toured the Capitol building, and even met Gov. Sean Parnell. Then they saw museums, listened to a panel on careers in public service and heard speeches by Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti and Attorney General John Burns.
On Friday they got an introduction to the chambers of the House and Senate, followed by an afternoon of group learning sessions on some weighty topics: restorative justice and creative sentencing; use, abuse and addiction; restorative justice and victim-offender mediation; and therapeutic court.
In the creative sentencing session, students learned more about restorative justice, and why the presenter thinks it’s important.
“Retributive focuses on the past, what we’re focusing on is the future so it doesn’t happen again,” said Kodiak probation officer and teen court board member Paul Caldentey, who gave a presentation and led discussion on the topic. “In some instances we can kinda bring things back as much as possible, and some you can’t. As much as possible, we want to try and repair this harm, knowing that sometimes its not attainable.”
Caldentey said there is a difference between restorative justice and retributive. He said it may seem like we have a retributive system, that focuses on strict punishment of crimes, however it’s more restorative — focusing on getting offenders to repair damages they’ve caused.
Caldentey talked about figuring out what the harm is, who it affects and how it can be corrected. He said restorative justice is a form of community justice.
Students talked about cases they’d worked with where they’d used creative methods in sentencing to try and curb behaviors.
One said they use community service in sentencing, but give the option of counseling and other therapies as a way to reduce community service hours. Teen courts can’t require things like counseling or substance abuse programs.
One talked about a case with a teen who has Asperger’s syndrome who wasn’t comfortable doing community service that interacted with a lot of other people. She talked about how they try and play on the offender’s talents. This particular teen loved art, so they required her to create a painting, which was donated to a non-profit.
Others said they’ve required reading books that deal with issues that deal with the offenses committed, and have the person write a psychologically styled essay on it.
Another case involved someone who stole a stack of freshly cut firewood. That person had to chop a new stack to replace what was stolen.
Saturday’s agenda featured more break-out learning sessions on topics like equity in the juvenile justice system; the increasing role of tribal courts in Alaska; privacy under the Alaska Constitution; and unmasking alcohol.
Maura Barry-Garland, vice president of the North Star Youth Court and a junior at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, found the conference interesting.
“I’m glad I was in Juneau and got to meet a lot of legislators and tell them about youth court,” she said. “There were some who hadn’t really heard about it in depth before.”
Barry-Garland’s first session was restorative justice creative sentencing.
“There is stuff I think we should definitely apply in Fairbanks,” she said. “I like the idea of clients reading books that apply to their case that will give them empathy toward their victims. There were some other really good ideas for alternative sentencing options, like working with the people you’ve hurt so you can repair the relationship along with the damage.”
Barry-Garland isn’t sure if she’ll make a career out of law just yet, but still values the program.
“I like that I have practical knowledge of the law,” she said. “I think that will benefit me later in life no matter what I do.” She said she hopes to use information from the conference to enhance the Fairbanks youth court program.
“I’m really hoping we can spread the message of remediation,” she said. “I think a lot of crimes are really caused by conflicts in the offenders’ life. If we can resolve those conflicts through an open dialog we can prevent crime instead of just punishing those who commit it.”
Nolan said most of the youth courts are in the high schools, though there is some middle school participation. They handle cases involving their peers.
“Some courts get referrals from the schools,” Nolan said. “Some will handle minor select cases. A lot of them will have to do minor consumption of alcohol. Most will do first time offense cases. Theft is one, vandalism — teen stuff.”
Nolan added that part of this conference is intended to honor Sharon Leon, Anchorage Youth Court coordinator, who got the youth courts going in Alaska 22 years ago. She is retiring.
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.