BETHLEHEM — During the Town Board meeting held last Wednsday, June 22, Katrina Charland, the Bethlehem Youth Court’s executive director, delivered her annual report about the program, which is among the first of its kind in the state. She not only detailed and compared offender statistics, but also highlighted the program’s place in the community.
“When I started about eight years ago,” said Charland, “not a lot of people in the community knew what Youth Court was and I’m happy to say that almost every family I meet now, when I ask them if they’ve ever heard of Youth Court, I would say that about 90 percent of them have. So I think we’ve done a really good job—maybe because we’ve been working on this public presence and letting people know that we’re here and this is what we do.”
That being said, Charland went on to note that 2015 was a relatively slow year for the program—due mostly to the fact the court was on hiatus for almost three months in the fall while she was on leave, but also due to a declining trend in juvenile and youth arrests across the state. Of the 12 cases (18 total charges) that were handled in 2015, she said, the average age of offenders was 17 and the ratio of male to female offenders was 75 percent to 25 percent, respectively. While a few years ago, the average age was closer to 15, said Charland, the male/female ratio has remained relatively consistent.
One significant difference BYC saw in 2015, according to the director, was the increased prevalence of traffic infractions, comprising 22 percent of the charges heard. BYC has traditionally only handled traffic infractions that occurred in conjunction with another criminal offense, such as unlawful possession of marijuana or alcohol.
“Last year was the first year that it was the second-most common offense heard in Youth Court,” said Charland. “Because of that, we are actually looking at potentially expanding our traffic violation acceptance criteria, and that has been at the request of some of the town judges. So that’s something we’re thinking about and looking into for the future.”
According to the report, respondents who have traffic tickets—particularly moving violations—benefit from participation in Youth Court because a successful disposition will take care of all DMV reporting matters, which means there are no points, fines or court fees.
The most common charge BYC heard in 2015 was unlawful possession of marijuana—39 percent of all charges. While marijuana usage remains a significant problem, said Charland, a perceptible shift among youth to the use of other illegal drugs is what prompted BYC to accept cases for other low-level drug possession charges. Only the very minor cases are heard, such as instances in which an offender is caught with one or two illegal pills.
“The reason we did that is that we’re noticing that there’s a trend among youth where they are starting to use pills just as much and they’re becoming sort of a new gateway drug, which, obviously, down the road can turn into much worse things like heroin use. So, we felt like maybe we can step in at that very early stage. We’re clearly not equipped to handle the more serious charges.”
“We did have a 100 percent successful completion rate last year, which is great,” said Charland, meaning that every participant completed all BYC requirements and received a full seal on their case; overall, BYC boasts a 96 percent success rate over the past several years.
BYC offenders completed 240 sentenced hours of community service in 2015, according to the report, with an additional 15 jury duties being performed—for a grand total of 255 hours of community service being completed by offenders alone. When taking BYC volunteer time into consideration, about 785 hours of service to the community were performed altogether at 19 different community service sites in and around the Town of Bethlehem and the Capital District. The average number of hours sentenced per offender was 20.
Other 2015 BYC news included:
The May Law Day Celebration and Induction Ceremony hosted by BYC, at which U.S. District Attorney Mae D’Agostino delivered the keynote address and 15 high school students were sworn in as newly trained volunteers;
The third annual Judge Jordan Memorial Award scholarship competition was held; five students participated by presenting oral arguments to a panel of judges. The first place scholarship in the amount of $750 went to Kieran Taylor, a senior at Doane Stuart. Second place, $250, was awarded to Laura Hooper, a graduating senior from Bethlehem Central High School. (This scholarship was made possible by contributions from the Bethlehem Police Supervisors’ Association and the Police Benevolent Association.)
In addition to the regular training program in the spring, BYC hosted a retraining/tribunal model training for current members in December of 2015. Of the 36 trained volunteers, 17 participated in the elective tribunal model training. This alternative style training was held in preparation for a Truancy Pilot Program.
BYC requested a $5,000 budgetary increase (to $35,000) for fiscal year 2016, which has been approved. The program also received financial support from the New York Bar Foundation through the Judge Judith S. Kay Youth Court Fund, the Stewart’s Holiday Match, and from donations made by community members in response to our annual letter campaign and through the State Employee Federated Appeal (SEFA) and Combined Federal Campaign (CFC).
“We do have a strong community presence across the board,” said Charland. “Not only are we here to help offenders, because kids do make mistakes and they do deserve a second chance at a clean record—we understand that and that’s why we’re here—but we’re also here to help the volunteers, the students who are going through the program as mentors and peer advocates. We’re giving them incredibly useful skills that they’ll take with them into college and down the road. We also have a very strong community presence at the community service sites that we serve.” Earlier this year, she noted, BYC helped to move approximately six tons of donated food items for Stamp Out Hunger.
The adolescent brain, said Charland, is wired to be more responsive to peers than to adults, making Youth Court a particularly effective way to reach at-risk children before bad behaviors become bad habits. In 2016, to date, she said that BYC has handled as many charges as it did during the whole of last year. “So we’re on track to have a busy year.”