Alaska Youth Court held annual conference in Nome
United Youth Courts of Alaska held their annual conference in Nome Friday, Saturday and Sunday. More than 80 students from around the state participated in seminars and exercises to expand their skills in functioning as an integral part of the state’s criminal justice system. Alaska is the only state in the union that authorizes by statute youth courts to hear, try and dispose of cases involving minors, who have committed misdemeanors.
The young people divided up into groups and walked between the Mini Convention Center, Old St. Joe’s, the Senior Center, and the Nome Trial Court. Spring weather made for some chilly walks but these kids are Alaskans.
Why do the students, most of whom are very busy with other school activities, choose to serve in the Youth Court?
“I like being able to help kids get a second chance,” said Katie Kelso as she hurried down Second St. from Old St. Joe’s to the Nome Trial Court. Maya Coler and Ava Earthman, also from Nome, walked with her. “Most of the people who come to Youth Court have messed up just one time and they’re going to get better. So I like being part of their lives and helping them.”
District Court refers Minor Consuming Alcohol cases to Youth Court. The Department of Juvenile Justice sends to the Youth Court misdemeanor crimes such as theft or assault. DJJ also funds the Youth Court program.
The parents of the accused decide whether their child will continue through the District Court process or to go through the Youth Courts diversion program. The DJJ has the same set up. If the parents agree the juvenile goes to the Youth Court.
Why would parents object to their child going through the Youth Court?
“Because a lot of them don’t think this is real because they’re dealing with kids,” said Pamela Smith, Director of the Nome Youth Court. “Some of them don’t want to face the consequences and some of them just assume that they’ll get a harsher punishment with the Department of Juvenile Justice and their kid should get punished.”
The Nugget reporter asked Coler, Earthman and Kelso whether some of the defendants seemed like a lost cause, unlikely to rehabilitate themselves.
“I’ve never had a defendant where I thought it was hopeless,” said Maya Coler. “They’re always willing to participate and they seem regretful about their actions.”
Restorative justice focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with the community. That is the objective of Youth Court. “I think it does work,” said Katie Kelso. “A lot of these kids know us and see us around school. It helps them give back to a community they’ve broken a part of.”
“It works very well,” said director Pamela Smith, interviewed at the Nome Trial Court. The students were there for an exercise in mediation. “We’re a small community so they see a lot of the youth defendants in school. They know them.” Confidentiality is a serious matter and any student who communicates details of a case with a person not in Youth Court will be kicked out. “So we really take this seriously. The law protects the juveniles from releasing their names and their identity. But if the juvenile brings it up in school then they’re the ones breaking confidentiality. We see that a lot.”
“We’re not supposed to say ‘Hi’ to them because of the confidentiality but if they make contact with us and say ‘Hi’ we can talk back,” said Anna Peterson as she arrived at Old St. Joe’s to hear one of the speakers.
“I think it’s a great program because we’re so small, because they see these kids every single day and say ‘Oh man, I need to do my community work service,’ said Smith. “It’s a constant reminder. And they don’t treat them any different like ‘You’re a bad guy so we shouldn’t hang out with you.’ They’re on the same basketball team.”
Saturday morning at Old St. Joe’s the students heard the keynote speech, delivered by Craig Stowers, Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court. He began by explaining that he was asked to talk about himself, a topic he preferred to avoid. But he described his difficult youth and how he first became a park ranger and then went to law school.
“Law school wasn’t difficult but it was a lot of work,” he said. “And I have to say it wasn’t the class it was the professor.” He reminded his young listeners that having fun is important. He commented on the poor acoustics at the former church, told the students that they don’t have to know what they want to be, and then summed up his advice with three statements: 1. You have to be willing to work hard and you have to be disciplined. 2. You have to be a life long learner. And 3. You’ve got to be a leader and care about the people you are leading.
Chief Justice Stowers commented that he’s optimistic about the future because of the young people he’s met at the Youth Court conference.
To become a Nome Youth Court student volunteer a student can sign up at school. Students in junior high through high school are eligible. They take some classes and pass the Youth Court bar exam before they can participate in the legal proceedings.
Over the weekend Nome Youth Court honored Nome law clerk Joseph Balderas, who went missing in 2016 and has never been found. A scholarship in his name was awarded to four Nome student volunteers. They are Maya Coler, Katie Kelso, Hunter Bellamy, who is now at UAF, and William Herzner.
The Nome student volunteers who participated this weekend were Maya Coler, Katie Kelso, Anna Peterson, Taylor Schlieper, Caitlyn Smith, Cameron Minix, Ethan Ahkvaluk, Ava Earthman and Cody Farris, who graduated last year.
Several groups were scheduled to fly out of Nome Sunday evening but the flight was cancelled. Arrangements were made for them to overnight in Nome and on Monday Alaska Airlines scheduled a special flight to get them home.