This is a guest blog by Hampshire Police Constable Mark Walsh, who has recently completed a Winston Churchill Fellowship.
I have just returned from the USA where I spent 6 week looking at the US youth criminal justice system. My specific focus was to look at peer-led youth courts as part of a Winston Churchill Fellowship.
From speaking to young people I was working with in the UK, it become very apparent that peer pressure plays a major role in their offending. I therefore started to question seriously that if peer pressure was playing a part in getting young people into trouble; couldn’t peer pressure also play a part in keeping them out?
I started to look at what we do in policing and the wider criminal justice system to assess whether we create enough opportunities to empower young people to have positive influence within the community. The results were that there was very little to no opportunities at that time. We could not suddenly start to recruit 14+ year old police officers just so we could better relate to our youth communities. We had to have something that was viable, meaningful and actually achieved something in the community.
We believed Peer Courts can provide that platform and we were fortunate to be able to obtain a Fellowship to explore them in person. Peer courts, also known as Teen and Youth Courts, are problem-solving courts but are totally different to what you may associate with the Youth Courts in the UK. Like the name suggests, Youth Courts in the USA are still courts for youth however the main difference is that they are also run by youth. Depending on the model, young people carry out roles such as bailiffs, clerks, youth-jury members, judges and advocates. It is this ‘court of peers’ which come together to decide the most appropriate and fair sentence for other young people which come before them charged with minor crimes.
You will not find any young people charged with felonies in Peer Courts, it is designed as a first-time offender program. The focus of Peer Courts is not about punishment; it is about support where the peer-jury uses restorative approaches to resolve the case before them. The respondent to the charge is still held to account for their unacceptable behaviour. But, crucially, this message is not just coming from the police, the judge or some other often far removed entity; it comes from people their own age. People like them.
What little doubt I had about whether young people could handle the responsibility of a criminal justice process vanished within minutes of seeing the young people of the Green Point Youth Court in Brooklyn, New York in operation. The Youth Court models in New York City which are managed and maintained by the Centre of Court Innovation were my first introduction into the concept of young people taking on this responsibility and I was left feeling nothing but impressed. In all the models I observed in operation from Montgomery in Maryland to San Diego; from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, I saw nothing but dedicated, committed and determined young people volunteering in such programs. They have proved to me that given the right support and the opportunity, young people can carry out meaningful roles within the criminal justice system with regards to breaking down the ‘youth-crime’ paradigm.
After gaining the support from the Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner Simon Hayes; we have started to develop a pilot model in Hampshire known as the 'Community Court'. Our pilot intends to bring community remedy and restoartive solutions to our police non-charged outcomes. It is early days yet but we are excited about the pilot and with the help of the Youth Commission we produced a pilot concept information video about peer cours in the UK.
Young people are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution. I believe Peer Courts could be an effective tool as part of that solution and I very much look forward to the day when we see a Peer Court in every county of the UK.
To read more about Mark's Fellowship experience, check out his blog. Mark's Fellowship report will be published via the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust soon.
For more on peer courts, please read our briefing on peer courts.