Gov. Sean Parnell signed a pair of bills Monday, one of which set up a youth court funding mechanism through court fines while the other established a counseling program for jurors in emotionally traumatic trials.
Senate Bill 257, sponsored by District B Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan and District 4 Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz, sets up a process that allows 25 percent of court fines to help fund youth court. Currently, adult criminal fines belong to the unrestricted general fund.
Each youth court has the same basic idea: young people picked up for misdemeanors, violations, and alcohol offenses get a trial by their peers. Court dates are usually once a month on a Saturday. Only 10 percent of juveniles who go through the youth court process re-offend.
There are 12 youth courts in the state of Alaska: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Homer, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Matsu, Nome, Sitka, Valdez, and Wrangell.
Parnell said the benefits of youth court include the training of future lawyers and those involved in the justice system, and the young men and women who need the peer group check on their behavior and accountability for their actions.
The youth courts also allow the state to save money on the usual expenditure of more than $10,000 per criminal in regular court proceedings, and let juvenile justice system professionals at the department of health and social services can prioritize other obligations.
“I am excited because it gives us a chance to be a solid peer group,” said Abigale Fox, lead prosecutor of Juneau’s youth court. “I think the kids that come in know about us but it shows them that if they continue this way they will pay for it, literally ... we knew we were doing something positive and this bill shows us that adults think we are doing something good too.”
Another benefit to the state of Alaska is kids volunteering in the program get great training in the basics of criminal law, research, writing, and public speaking. Egan was witness to their polish during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on S.B. 257 in February.
“The testimonies given by these youths was just incredible,” Egan said. “It made the committee very emotional.”
Egan thanked Muñoz for carrying a companion bill in the House this year and House minority leader Beth Kerttula for seeing it through. Muñoz in turn thanked the many youths who came forward to talk to legislators during that February hearing.
“It was the youth and the story they told that motivated us to carry this legislation,” Muñoz said.
Said Parnell, “One of the great things about signing bills is that I am constantly reminded of the beauty of our constitutional framework, where an idea can spring forth from the public and be brought to representatives, moved through the process, and become a law of the land.”
Parnell then signed House Bill 52, sponsored by Kerttula, which allows a judge to offer up to 10 hours of counseling to a juror who serves on a jury trial which involves extraordinarily graphic or emotional testimony or evidence. The bill would be a tool to aid jurors when they deliver verdicts on sexual assault, domestic violence, homicide or assault cases.
“With this, Alaska truly takes the lead,” Kerttula said. “It’s a small bill but we have the opportunity in Alaska to take the forefront and lead the nation in recognizing the trauma our jurors can face when just doing their civic duty.”