“The weed that Don smoked at Woodstock was way less potent…”

The Youth Court jury laughs. Don Carney, director of the Marin YMCA Youth Court, is off-site during this evening’s session, leaving two students to give his pre-session spiel in his stead. Don always includes a review of the three most common drugs used by Marin youth, and he makes a point about pot in particular: that the amount of THC –and therefore, potency–is dramatically higher today than¬†what he smoked at Woodstock.

Some of these young people–between the ages of 12 and 17–have clearly been around the Youth Court block, and have heard his talking points dozens of times, such that they can recite them in his absence, with occasional comic effect.

Systems Thinking

In this blog, I am highlighting the elements of the Youth Court in Marin that illuminate its systems thinking qualities. I found Marin Youth Court to be a remarkable, nearly literal illustration–almost a drawing before my eyes–of a social system.

In conventional (or linear, or reductionist) thinking, when a person steals merchandise from a convenience store, he or she has committed a crime and should be punished. In the short-term, that may be the best, or at least only available action, but in the long term, a systems thinking perspective demands a look at the context–the social system–in which this person committed this crime.

Youth Court is a restorative justice program. Restorative justice is a systems thinking approach to the challenge of people committing crimes.

Youth Court

The young people who are Respondents (not “the accused”) in Youth Court have already admitted culpability. Therefore, the jury of their peers is not tasked with deciding guilt or innocence, or any such thing. Rather, the jury is charged with publicly and out loud building a picture of the event in question, and the context in which the event occurred.

Building “the context” means establishing who this young person is. How is her life going? Does he have friends? Is she doing ok in school? Does he get along with his parents and siblings? Is she looking forward to a rewarding life, or does she have little hope for her future?

The second part of the jury’s task is assigning a list of actions for the Respondent. The items on the list must be completed within three months, and if they are, the Respondent’s official record will remain clean. Community service, letters of apology, tutoring, and youth court sessions are examples of actions that were assigned by the jury to the Respondent during the sessions I attended.

In the Absence of Youth Court

It’s important to note that in the absence of a Youth Court-type option, a young person who steps outside the bounds of social strictures is often suspended or expelled from school, and otherwise put on a course that progressively isolates him or her from society to greater degrees over time. This is a vicious circle that becomes ever more difficult for an individual to escape. When a person deviates from the norm, we tend to isolate that person, pushing him or her further and further out of the collective system.

Building the Picture

I want to go back to this “building the picture” aspect. While many members of the peer jury are somewhat tentative about their questioning of the Respondent (and the acoustics of the county courtroom make it impossible to hear soft voices), as a member of the audience I was impressed again and again with the clarity of young voices, and the overall effect of this co-picture building.

To clarify the events for the jury, the picture building typically begins with questions about the event that led to this person’s presence in the courtroom. The jury also ask if restitution or reconciliation has been attempted: verbal or written apology, etc.

But the questions quickly move to context building: drawing the lines that illustrate the context of this person’s life. “How did your parents react when they found out about what you did?” “Do you have a job outside of school?” “What is your relationship like with your dad?” “Do you have siblings?” “Does your sister live at home? Do you get along?” “Have you ever tried alcohol?” “How often do you smoke pot?” “Do you currently see a therapist?” “How are your grades?” “Would you be interested in tutoring?” And often, “Can you say more about that?”

The task of the jury is to build as in-depth a portrait of the Respondent as possible, because then the jury is in the best position to assign the most appropriate restorative plan. With in-depth information, they can assign a list of activities that will help knit, or re-knit the individual back into the fabric of society.

Restorative Justice

The Insight Prison Project provides this description of restorative justice:

Restorative Justice sees crime as a breakdown of society and human relationships and attempts to mend these relationships through dialogue, community support, involvement, and inclusion. While denouncing criminal behavior, Restorative Justice emphasizes the need to treat prisoners with respect and to reintegrate them into the larger community in ways that can lead them to engage in lawful behavior. At the center of the Restorative Justice philosophy is the understanding of the importance of engaging victims and prisoners in a healthy way so they can feel empowered and are supported to make meaning out of their experience. Restorative Justice attempts to draw on the strengths of both prisoners and victims, rather than dwelling on their deficits. Ref

This last point–regarding focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses–is also something Youth Court juries try to include. Part of the picture building means asking questions such as, “What do you enjoy doing?” or, “What are you passionate about?” and, “Are you planning to go to college? What do you want to study?” Jurors–and the two peer representatives who orient the Respondent and accompany him or her through the process–work to identify and reflect the person’s strengths, rather than dwelling on what is wrong.

A Critique

One critique I have of Marin Youth Court is an aspect that is at least in part beyond the organization’s control. The racially homogenous nature of the jury is a product of mostly-white Marin County, at 85.7% “white alone” as of 2016 (Ref). An all-white jury (unless perhaps members have been through a thorough cultural competency training program) is handicapped in their ability to see into the unique challenges faced by non-white people who appear before them, especially immigrants. Ensuring there is one or even two non-white jury members might help, but would not be the answer: the group is functioning in the context of a society that is distinctly uncomfortable dealing with racial issues out loud.

A Challenge

This process of youth reweaving youth into the fabric of the social system is the embodiment of the power of Restorative Justice, and genuine caring. If the young person has never felt at home in the local social system, it’s not reweaving but weaving that is the hoped-for end result.

I don’t think we should underestimate the courage it takes to ask a peer, “Can you say more about why you don’t have much hope for your future?” and of course, the courage it takes for the Respondent to answer, truthfully, in front of 20 or 30 strangers who are listening to your every word. I could easily see this jury of peers asking, “Can you tell us about the unique challenges you face being the only Cambodian from Cambodia [or Honduran, or Haitian, etc.] in your class?”

But this is where we come in. Youth Court is only going to see the tiniest percentage of Marin’s challenged youth. Whether a young white male, or a young Honduran female, or a transgender Iranian, Youth Court is one bright node in our social structure that attempts to catch people before they fall too far. Think how much more powerful this group and process would be if it occurred in the context of a society that is culturally intelligent?

What might be possible?

Further Resources

Don recommends the documentary Paper Tigers: One High School’s Unlikely Success Story, and the follow-up, Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope. He advocates for the adoption of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)¬†evaluations in schools, but laments the insufficient resources schools have to add another process. “I want to sit down with the governor, and the budget, and swap the prison and education budget,” he told me in an October 2017 interview.

In the wake of the latest school shooting, Florida, February 14, 2018, one can’t help but speculate that it can only be a good idea for school staff and officials to develop a more intimate portrait of the psychological and emotional state of their students. Resources such as Youth Court are clearly needed at a much more widespread level in the United States.

Marin Youth Court