You don't see state Superior Court judges washing cars to raise funds to keep their courtrooms open. But Alaska's youth courts, in which teenage volunteers dispense justice to about 900 young offenders a year, aren't funded by the state.
So far, the 15 or so youth courts in Alaska have relied on a mix of federal grants and support from municipalities, corporations and Native organizations, as well as car washes and other fund-raisers.
Staffed by amateur teenage attorneys and judges, the courts handle first-time youthful offenders who have committed crimes such as underage drinking, vandalism and shoplifting. Punishments usually include restitution and community work service.
"The reason it's such invaluable help to us is that these kids are young kids, so it's real important what impression they get from the system," said Juneau District Judge Peter Froehlich. "How the case is handled affects them more than if they were older and more mature."
The youth courts' funding pays for adult coordinators, equipment and supplies, and travel to state and national conferences.
But the federal grant that passes through the state Division of Juvenile Justice is drying up, and youth courts are looking for regular state funding to replace at least part of that.
"The federal grant is critical to their survival," said Krista Scully, executive director of United Youth Courts of Alaska. The funding concerns come at a time when 17 more communities are looking to start youth courts, she added.
The loss of the federal grant could close Juneau's program, said Weston Eiler, a local teenager who is outgoing chairman of the Alaska Youth Court Sustainability Coalition.
"We're looking seriously at shutting down operations if we can't make that money up," said Eiler, also a member of the Juneau Youth Court board of directors.
About 20 volunteers from grades eight through 12 serve on the Juneau Youth Court, which handled 40 cases this past fiscal year, said coordinator Glen Ray.
The youth courts have asked the Legislature to set aside for them a portion of fines collected by the criminal justice system. Youths crafted a sample bill, which served as the basis for a real bill, and then lobbied for it.
House Bill 303, sponsored late in the session by Rep. Dan Ogg, a Kodiak Republican, picked up all of the House Judiciary Committee members as co-sponsors as it passed that panel. The bill was in the House Finance Committee as the session ended in May and could advance when lawmakers reconvene in January.
"We raised a lot of awareness," Eiler said. "For this part of the year, that was our main accomplishment."
The bill skirts the state constitutional prohibition on dedicated funds by saying the Legislature may appropriate 25 percent of certain criminal fines to youth courts. The youth court coalition suggested it be 15 percent or less and was hoping to garner about $500,000 a year in state funds.
The bill's fiscal note says it wouldn't cost anything. But it would use money that now goes into the general fund.
"This is general fund money, and you're fighting with everybody else for general fund dollars," said Doug Wooliver, an administrative attorney with the state court system.
The state has given youth courts about $400,000 a year from the federal Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant. But the state cut that back to $330,000 for the fiscal year that begins July 1 as the total grant was scaled down, said MaShelle Atherton, state administrative probation officer. The grant also helps pay for the state Division of Juvenile Justice.
The president's budget for next fiscal year doesn't include the grant. Barring the emergence of another grant, the state won't have money to pass on to youth courts in the fiscal year that begins July 2004.
"If youth courts can't make up for that, they will have to scale back or cease operations," Atherton said.
The Wrangell Youth Court, now in its third year, has been funded mostly by the federal grant and the Alaska Native Justice Center, which helps a number of rural youth courts. Both sources cut back their funding for the upcoming fiscal year, said court coordinator Diane Ivy-Dahlin.
About 30 students, including some middle-schoolers, handled 23 cases in Wrangell last year, putting in 2,900 volunteer hours. Only two cases have been referred to the court this year, which Ivy-Dahlin sees as a sign of its success.
But, she said, "It's hard for them (the student volunteers) to put their heart and soul into programs you know are only going to last for 12 months or two years."
Youth courts should be funded by the state just as it pays for any judicial program, said Juneau-Douglas High School Assistant Principal Laury Scandling, who helped found the local program.
"Justice is a public responsibility," she said. "... Why should we be on the street begging for money for a public responsibility?"
Youth courts nationwide are seen as social programs, not official courts, said Tracy Godwin Mullins, project director of the National Youth Court Center in Lexington, Ky.
Mullins knows of no state that funds youth courts as part of its court system, or even provides regular substantial funding. Most successful programs have been paid for by cities, counties or community organizations, she said.
"Ultimately, communities do need to take some responsibility to fund local youth court programs," Mullins said.
There's still hope of federal funding. Although President Bush hasn't included money for the Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant in his budget, Congress supports the program, and it's not certain the money will be zeroed out, said Mary Louise Embrey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice.
States can use other federal justice grants for youth courts as well, she said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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