Since 2011, hundreds of Cass County youth have learned about the county’s juvenile judicial process through hands-on experience.
Conducted for peers by peers, the Cass County Youth Court is composed of middle- and high-school students who hear real cases committed by juvenile offenders. During their appearances, youth offenders are tried, defended, judged, convicted or exonerated by their peers, who fulfill the roles of judge, attorney, clerk and bailiff.
Though supervised and monitored by adult attorneys, judges, prosecutors and juvenile officials, the Youth Court’s volunteer appointees make final decisions about cases involving misdemeanors and lower-level criminal offenses, such truancy, tobacco or trespassing.
Since eighth grade, Raef Bell, 17, has been hearing those cases as a Cass County Youth Court volunteer. During that time, the Peculiar resident has performed every position within the Court, including clerk, bailiff, defense attorney, prosecuting attorney and judge.
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“I’ve always been interested in a career in criminal justice,” said the Raymore-Peculiar High School junior, who plans to apply to UMKC’s five-year law program. “This program allowed me to get involved in that field and it has shown me I would enjoy it. I’ve learned how the judicial system and criminal justice works.”
The teen’s sights are set on becoming a prosecutor.
“You can go forward, or not, depending on evidence — and you can directly impact someone else’s life for the better,” he said.
Constructive outcomes through affirmative peer guidance is the mission of the Youth Court. Built around a culture of “positive peer pressure,” court appointees influence and educate other youth.
Ultimately, the Court’s goals are to reduce incidents of juvenile delinquency, misconduct and misbehavior, while diverting youth from the Cass County Juvenile Justice System. Once a youth fulfills a sentence imposed by the Youth Court, records regarding the proceedings are destroyed on the defendant’s 17th birthday.
“It’s uncomfortable for youth charged with misdemeanors to face court-appointed judges or attorneys their own age and be asked why they made a certain decision,” said Judge Stacey Lett, associate circuit judge, Missouri 17th Judicial Circuit Court. “Facing a peer in court can create a positive dynamic and a life-lasting impression.
“When a youth comes before me, I may not always understand their problems and challenges. It can also be easy for them to be dismissive of my orders, rules and expectations.”
According to Lett, keeping juvenile offenders out of the court system is another key benefit of the Youth Court program.
“Youth Court is a diversionary program through the juvenile offices and it’s very effective for keeping youth records out of the court computer system,” she said. “It’s a better approach and a really great opportunity. Those kids who serve on the court have a real, life-changing influence on other kids’ lives.”
Bell agees that because of the court, kids’ mistakes won’t have long-lasting repercussions on their futures.
“In the past seven years, there has only been a 5 percent recidivism rate with offenders who’ve come before the Court,” Bell said. “This shows the positive the impact we have on them.”
Benefits for those who serve in the Youth Court are also far-reaching.
Beginning in middle school, Cass County youth can apply to serve on the Court. After a month-long training period, applicants take a bar exam. Upon passing, they can remain members through high school.
“Serving on the court helps so much with self-confidence,” Lett said. “The volunteers become more comfortable with themselves and communicating in front of others. Through the years, I’ve seen the growth and how they handle themselves.”
Then there’s the ethical portion of the service, Lett added.
“Members have to be more responsible and are held to a higher level of standards and behavior. Inside and outside of the court, they are examples to others.”