Establishing a youth court in Putnam County will provide a lot of opportunities to many different members of the community. But more than anything, it will give good kids who goof up a second chance.
"Kids are going to be kids and make mistakes," Putnam County Circuit Court Judge Matt Headley said. "And anyone who says otherwise needs to take a look in the mirror."
Linda Merkel, president of the Putnam County Youth Development Commission, told a group of about 25 interested community members Monday night at the Area 30 Career Center that she expects the newly-established Putnam County Youth Court to hear its first case by Oct. 15.
The youth court, also called a teen court, is an initiative designed to give educators and criminal justice officials a way to discipline first time offenders in a meaningful way that won't affect their criminal records.
Children and teens referred to the court must be charged with only relatively minor crimes and must plead guilty. The judge and supervisors will be the only adults in the court. Defendants will be defended, prosecuted and judged by a jury of other young people.
Since all defendants must plead guilty to their crimes, the court will decide only on the sentences they receive. Sentences will almost always include community service, letters of apology to victims and essays. The Putnam County system will be set up so all kids who go through the court must serve on future juries as part of their sentences, as well, Merkel said. Detention in a juvenile justice facility is not among the punishments that the youth court can hand out.
Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Renee Marstellar estimated that about 50 kids a year who cycle through the court system would be eligible for youth court.
If a defendant successfully completes the sentence handed down by the youth court, all charges will dismissed and the arrest or citation will never appear in court records.
Merkel said on average, it costs about $32,000 per year to run a teen court. The Youth Development Commission, which is the non-profit organization that has spearheaded the court initiative, has been able to scare up minimal funding for the program, but is always on the lookout for donations and grants, she said.
North Putnam High Junior Rachael Smith attended the informational meeting because she is interested in being a juror for the youth court because the sentences it could hand down will be more meaningful than in the traditional juvenile justice system.
"Peers just know better," she said.
Students and adults interested in volunteering to help out with the youth court can contact Merkel at 653-9342.