Criminal Justice Section  

    Criminal Justice Magazine

Criminal Justice Magazine
Spring 2000
Vol. 15, Issue 1

The Time Dollar Youth Court: Salvaging Throw-away Juveniles

By Edgar S. Cahn

In Washington, D.C., more than 50 percent of young black males between the ages of 18 and 24 are now under court jurisdiction-in prison, on parole, or on probation. The so-called juvenile justice system is the feeder, the supply line. The journey starts with a juvenile's first brush with the law and the response he or she gets. Typically, the prosecutor's office simply "no papers" the case. After all, overburdened prosecutors have more important things to worry about than a mere first offense. They have to deal with hardened criminals and recidivists.

But that first "no paper" sends a message that young people read loud and clear: "You get three freebies before anyone takes you seriously." And everyone knows that this does not mean three illegal acts-it means three times getting caught.

This is how the journey begins. By the third arrest, a formal juvenile proceeding functions more as a rite of passage, a test of manhood (or womanhood), than a chance for the young offender to elect a different path in life. Without meaning to, the juvenile justice system is turning young kids into hardened criminals faster than any gang in town.

When I shared that observation with Chief Judge Hamilton of the D.C. Superior Court, District of Columbia, his response was immediate and direct: "What do you want to do about it? And how fast can you do it?"

Before I knew it, the Time Dollar Institute and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) David A. Clarke School of Law were in the business of planning and launching a youth court. The Time Dollar Institute was formed in 1995 and has developed a local, tax-exempt currency called "time dollars" as a way of rewarding people for helping others and building community. One hour of help equals one time dollar. People often labeled recipients, clients, and "targets" can now become contributors by helping others. Earning time dollars makes them genuine partners in producing health, justice, education, community development, and social change. The institute has assisted with the establishment of Time Dollar programs in 30 states and three countries overseas.

For its part, the UDC law school seeks to discharge its ongoing debt to the District of Columbia community by absorbing critical costs and by helping shape the youth court as it evolves from a diversion program to the cornerstone of a genuine community justice system.

The first part of this article provides some illustrations of how powerful the peer interaction fostered by the Time Dollar Youth Court can be. The second part summarizes unique features of the court. The third part lays out lessons, implications, and next steps.

Youth as coproducers of justice

When we undertook to design a youth court after canvassing other models around the country, we thought we knew the problem we were tackling: How to turn a youth's first brush with the law into a turning point that heads him or her down a different path.

I had known of a youth court functioning in Ithaca, New York, in the early 1960s and had been advocating widespread adoption, ever since. (See Edgar Cahn and Jean Cahn, What Price Justice: The Civilian Perspective Revisited, 41 NOTRE DAME LAW. 927, 954 n.37 (1966); Power to the People or the Profession: The Public Interest in Public Interest Law, 79 YALE L.J. 1005, 1017 (1970); Antioch School of Law, Catalog, M.A. in Teaching Clinical Education 13 (Youth Court Planning Project) (1976-1977).)

Youth courts finally began to spread in the 1980s as a result of the success of the Odessa Teen Court in curbing drug use and the missionary work of its founder, Natalie Rothstein, in spreading the word. (See generally American Probation and Parole Association PEER JUSTICE AND YOUTH EMPOWERMENT: AN IMPLEMENTATION GUIDE FOR TEEN COURT PROCEEDINGS (1998).)

Although the idea of youth courts began to take hold, they were largely instituted in suburban and small-town settings. Once we grappled with implementing the youth court concept in an inner-city context, it became clear that we were dealing with a qualitatively different set of problems. Mobilizing peers meant something very different. We were not dealing with isolated instances of deviant behavior. Studies projecting minority involvement in the justice system predict that, if current trends continue, over 90 percent of African American males will be under court jurisdiction before they reached the age of 30. That makes so-called deviant behavior look like a dominant culture. When we trained the first group of jurors, a young man who had spent some time in prison summed up his life choices and his preferences in words that still haunt me: "I'd rather be carried by six than judged by 12." Death was less to be feared than the life he could envision. Our job was to create a different set of options by creating a new subculture-a place where it was safe to say to a peer something as simple as: "Don't do something stupid." We had to teach or, more precisely, we had to give permission to prospective jurors to confront their peers with the obvious: "You knew when you got into that car that there was no way that Mercedes belonged to him." Or to say out loud: "If you hang out at that corner, you know sooner or later you're going to get busted. And with that crowd, someone is bound to be carrying some drugs."

Young people think those thoughts. They just do not get reinforcement or affirmation for saying them. Indeed, those are things that a youth had better not say if he or she wants peer acceptance in many inner-city neighborhoods. Creating a youth court means creating a world where young people are supported and affirmed for saying what they know: "Don't hurt someone. Don't take something that isn't yours. Don't take that kind of risk."

In a case involving a boy charged with stealing a car, the defendant had explained his actions by citing the fact that keys had been left in the car's ignition. One juror who had served time himself and was now heavily involved in the church pounced on that excuse: "Just because you see a car with the key in the ignition doesn't mean some higher voice is ordering you to jump in and drive it off." The other jurors tried gamely to suppress a laugh and nodded in agreement. Coming from an adult, the same words likely would have gone in one ear and out the other; coming from a peer, with others agreeing, they nearly brought the defendant to tears.

Another boy found himself before the Time Dollar Youth Court for driving the family car without a license. His grandmother was seated next to him, embarrassed and in tears. "The jury hereby sentences you to either write a letter of apology to your grandmother or give her a great big hug right now," the jury foreman said. The boy opted for the hug, as the jury broke into applause.

Being part of the Time Dollar Youth Court makes it permissible to say those things. It vests those kids with a responsibility to tell it like it is-to kids whom they have never seen before. That takes more than teaching. It entails the creation of an environment that supports those values.

Youth are the "consumers" of juvenile justice. What they perceive is that they are just as likely to be consumers of injustice. Consider the following case. A young man appears before a jury of his peers charged, according to the police report, with having slashed the tires on his teacher's Lexus automobile because she kept him after school for failing to hand in his homework. The teenage jury hears the young man explain that he knows he did wrong, but he lost control because he had begged the teacher to be permitted to leave for 10 minutes in order to bring his younger brother and sister safely home across gang territory from a neighboring school. That was his "job." He had promised his mother and father that they could count on him. And being kept in after school put his younger brother and sister in real physical danger. He was beside himself with rage, shame that he had let his parents down, and fear for his brother's and sister's safety.

The teen jury returned from its deliberations with a four-part sentence:

1. Get this kid another teacher; a teacher who doesn't understand what this kid was going through has no business being his teacher.

2. Write a letter of apology to the teacher and make a good faith payback of at least $30 that you personally earned.

3. Write a letter of apology to your younger brother and sister explaining to them why, despite the provocation, this was no way to act. They look up to you; you need to put them straight that acting out this way is not right.

4. Hang out a minimum of 20 hours at a boys' club over the next month. You need to be a kid and spend some time just being with your own age group.

Being a consumer of the juvenile justice system in all likelihood means that one has been treated with disrespect, written off, and generally (or specifically) found wanting by society.

We learned quickly there is one thing we do not have to teach these children: They already know how to care for each other, to reach out to each other. At one of the very first Time Dollar Youth Court hearings, when we were just beginning to find out what kids could do for kids, we watched the foreperson of the jury, herself a single mother who had been through her own hell, trying to get some answers from a teenager who had taken someone's car to go joyriding at 2 a.m. The defendant knew how to stonewall. He sat hunched over, eyes on the floor. We could barely hear his answers. "Yes. I took the car." "Yes. It was two in the morning." "Yes. I go to school." The jury knew that wasn't true. "I do okay." Again, not true.

Juror frustration was building. The young woman serving as foreperson made a direct personal plea: "We are only trying to do what it is we can do. The only way we can do anything is if you help us. You help us. We can help you. With you just sitting there just chilling, being quiet, you know, it's not going to do nothing."

Finally, the boy's mother broke in: "Basically, Ronald's a good child. Since he can't speak up, I'll speak up for him so you all can help him. We're in an area where there's nothing but drugs. Nothing but killing. No positive role models around there. His oldest brother has been killed and basically Ronnie has been a troubled child because his brother died in front of him." She went on to explain that since then Ronnie did not trust anyone and would not open up to anyone.

The jury went into momentary shock, but not the foreperson. She took over and everything changed because of what it was taking out of her to give of herself under the circumstances: "I could understand exactly why he gets into trouble." Her voice slowed, halted, then deepened as she choked up: "I seen my own mother get killed. It's hard growing up, knowing all these things that you know and experiencing the things that you experience not because it's your choice. It's because things are going to happen that are meant to happen." Tears streamed down her face as she added, "We're here to help. But we can't help you if you don't help us." And then she just lost it. She stopped being a jury foreperson and just reached out to the defendant. Without any authorization, she extended a welcome to a program that had helped her as a single mother get past drugs and find an inner spiritual strength: "We would be more than happy to have you come there with us if you want to. I'll talk to you about that after this. Just want to wish you the best. God bless you."

These are the youth whom so-called experts are now labeling "superpredators." People don't look these children in the eyes when they meet them. They walk the other way. But these kids care for each other-even though they are strangers.

Last summer I met with a group who had been serving as jurors. They told me they wanted to know what happened to the young people who came before them, what happened after they pronounced sentence. Then one of them made an offer: "I'd like to be assigned as a buddy to stick with one." All the others nodded in agreement. They would, too. I asked: "Wouldn't you be afraid? After all, you are the ones who sentenced them." They shook their heads "no." After all, one explained, "We're jurors," absolutely convinced that that status protected them. But equally clear in their minds was that their job was somehow incomplete unless they took personal responsibility to do whatever they could for the offenders whom they had judged.

We had enlisted these youngsters as "coproducers." For them, coproduction meant more than imposing a sentence. It meant making a commitment: No more throw-away kids. That awareness redefined the task, the design, and the path we have taken.

Special features and present scale

The Time Dollar Youth Court we have created in Washington, D.C., was from its inception different from most other youth courts in certain important respects. This youth court does not use a youth prosecutor or defense counsel because we observed that too often with them the process became a contest to determine which youth had the "fastest mouth." We felt it was imperative for the jury to interact directly with the respondent and the parent-and wanted to make sure that the hearing was not simply a spectator sport.

An adult presides, but the jury foreperson, a teenager, leads the questioning and calls upon other jurors to ask questions and follow-up questions. After two years we decided to make jury duty a mandatory element of every sentence; there are now juries composed of 100 percent respondents and former respondents. The shift in role seems to create a shift in perspective that has powerful attitudinal consequences.

Each hour of jury duty earns one time dollar. The reward is a recycled computer that jurors can take home with the time dollars they earn. The message for participants is clear: Helping others creates opportunity and you have the power to shape your destiny.

We are now developing arrangements with the University of the District of Columbia to enable jurors to utilize their time dollars in applying to the university; we want to secure special placement in the university's Criminal Justice Program and a special financial aid package. Our reasoning is simple: community service ought to be a road to opportunity. We established that with veterans of military service. Serving this nation gained access to special categories of financial aid. Why can't we apply the same principle to youth who are willing to serve to curb violence in our neighborhoods?

The Time Dollar Youth Court is now moving to a scale that can begin to have large-picture impacts. The court handles between seven and 12 hearings each week. That is more than 350 cases a year-a figure roughly equivalent to one-third the number of first time, nonviolent juvenile offenders in the District. Our goal is to reach 50 percent within a year.

The hearings are widely dispersed in the community. One hearing site is at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law. That is where the all-respondent jury meets. The law school is also where the juries composed entirely of former respondents are trained. At least 20 first-year law students discharge a 40-hour community service requirement by helping to conduct the court's hearings, by monitoring discharge of jury-imposed obligations, and by serving as buddies and mentors to the participants.

Outside of the law school, most of the Time Dollar Youth Court jury pools are at public housing complexes. One is at a charter school for youth in halfway houses and shelters; another is under development at the Latin American Youth Agency; and the newest site to be added will be based at a middle school building secured by the Marshall Heights Community Development Corporation.

A court-community partnership

The Time Dollar Youth Court is teaching us that juvenile justice is not something we do to juveniles. It's something that can only be done with juveniles. The courts cannot do it alone. Juveniles, parents, and community members must all be enlisted actively as coproducers of justice. What exactly does this mean?

Coproduction is not just juvenile justice with kids playing at being jurors. If the outcome is called juvenile justice, then we have to realize that when we engage young people, we are changing the producers, the process, and-ultimately-the end product.

Treating youth as assets

The Time Dollar Youth Court can create roles for youths that give them ways to be valued for what they are now and for what they can contribute, right now, as youth. It can help adults overcome the fear that so many have of youth, particularly young black males. It can help counter the stereotypes of youth provided by the media.

When I sit with a respondent and parent(s) while the jury deliberates, I often comment: "You know, this community needs you."

The respondent looks up at me with skeptical eyes as if to say: "White man, what planet are you from? Don't you know what I am?"

I follow up by asking: "Do you know the difference between blue and green? Or the difference between a giraffe and a dog?"

I can read the answer in the kid's eyes: "Are you crazy? Of course I know that." But all that comes out is "Yeah."

Then something begins to happen with the follow-up question: "Don't you think some four- or five-year-olds in Headstart would rather learn that from you than from me?"

I get a grudging nod of assent. Then I ask the youth: "Do you have a grandmother or grandfather?"


"Do you know how to hug them?"

"Of course."

"Well, do you know there are seniors in nursing homes here in the District who haven't been hugged in six months or a year? Do you think you could visit them and give them a hug?"

Something starts to melt and a light comes into the respondent's eyes when I say: "I know you have problems and I know that you need help, but what I'm saying is that you are special, now, just the way you are. And that you have something right now that others need." And I know from the look in the kid's eyes that this is perhaps the first time in a long time that anyone has said something like this to him.

John McKnight, director of the Community Studies Program at the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University, says that we should focus on assets, not deficiencies, and that we must build on strengths, rather than being preoccupied by needs. The Time Dollar Youth Court provides a way to do that, by including community service and jury duty as parts of the sentence.

That's not enough. We know that. Young people have serious needs. And more likely than not, if they are entangled in the juvenile justice system, they have serious educational deficiencies, serious problems at home, and serious problems in their neighborhoods. Providing an opportunity for them to feel of value, to contribute, to define themselves as special may not be enough, but it is surely a critical missing ingredient.

As the Time Dollar Youth Court develops, we are finding that it provides a base from which to begin addressing some of those other needs and some of those systemic issues.

Community service as real work

Community service cannot be "leaf raking"-less than meaningful tasks such as filing, photocopying, or answering the telephone. We have to create placements that embed youth in community-based organizations that value them and offer them a different environment. We are developing a broad array of placements: with churches, with boys and girls clubs, in an after-school tutoring program, with the Parks & Recreation Department supervising basketball for younger kids, with a community-policing program, or with D.C. Kitchen preparing meals for the homeless. We find that too many agencies know how to "serve" youth, to deliver services to them, but very few know how to make constructive use of youth as assets, as builders, as contributors. The Time Dollar Youth Court seeks to help shift those agencies from the deficit perspective to the asset perspective.

More is needed. These young people need a buddy, a mentor-one person in their lives who believes in them. So we are linking with various groups that can offer that: church groups, criminal justice students, a group called Concerned Black Men, and law students doing community service.

Providing services

These young people do need services from a system or set of systems. In the past many of those systems have been unresponsive. We need to create an infrastructure that serves as an advocate to link each child, one at a time, to create an individual package of services tailored to him or her and his or her family. The infrastructure is not a top-down coordinating structure; it is a bottom-up advocacy structure that negotiates access and follows up on actual delivery, one case at a time. For example, at the UDC Law School Juvenile Clinic professors, who played critical roles in the design of the court, are now designing ways in which the assertion of special education rights can link respondents to an array of services that can address their educational deficits.

Beyond service delivery to system reform

Many systems designed to deliver needed services to youth are unresponsive. And there are gaps. So the Time Dollar Youth Court needs to deal with systemic problems too. Our efforts have uncovered a disturbing phenomenon: Many of the agencies funded to serve youth and to serve as advocates for youth feel unable to speak out, afraid that doing so might jeopardize their funding. They know the problems and the shortcomings. But those concerns silences them. So our next step is to create a youth grand jury to provide a voice for youth and a way in which the system itself can learn about things that are known but never said-or never said in a way that enables the system to respond.

We think that creating a voice for youth will enable them to engage in bringing about social change. It was young people who "didn't know any better" who helped power the civil rights movement. We need to find a way to harness that same energy as a new force for social change. We will be staffing our youth grand jury with law students, a law professor, and a special youth facilitator to try to equip young people to collect and analyze facts, and to speak to adult decision makers about what needs to happen to make the system work better for young people.

A partnership between courts and community

The Time Dollar Youth Court provides an ideal vehicle to create a broader partnership between the courts and the community. The juvenile justice system now dumps more and more at-risk youth on the courts. The courts, even with extensive social service departments, cannot do it alone. We know that we need to find a way to strengthen families and revitalize neighborhoods. We can spend our time looking at causes and seeking someone to blame, or we can try to build upon what we know to create solutions.

The largest study ever undertaken on the causes of crime and delinquency has yielded new data that help us understand what we must do. Published in the August 1997 issue of Science, a multimillion-dollar, multiyear study undertaken in Chicago by the Harvard School of Public Health, concluded that poverty and joblessness could not account for the differences in crime they found in largely black neighborhoods. They had classified 343 neighborhoods in Chicago by those characteristics that were thought to be predictors of crime-poverty, unemployment, race, single-parent households, etc.-only to find that neighborhoods that looked alike in terms of those variables had very different levels of violent crime. Obviously, some other factor was involved. Some 8,872 interviews later, they had an answer: collective efficacy.

What did that technical term really mean? Look behind the label and it turned out to be a willingness by residents "to intervene in the lives of children." More specifically, that meant a willingness to step in to stop acts like truancy, graffiti painting, and street-corner "hanging" by teenage gangs. Interestingly enough, the critical factor was not "external actions" such as police crackdowns. What emerged was a finding of the "effectiveness of 'informal' mechanisms by which residents themselves achieve public order. In particular, we believe that collective expectations for intervening on behalf of neighborhood children is a crucial dimension of the public life of neighborhoods."

The New York Times provided a capsule summary of those findings:

Some neighborhoods in Chicago are largely black and poor, yet have low crime rates-so some other explanation is needed for the causes of crime. . . . The finding is considered significant by experts because it undercuts a prevalent theory that crime is mainly caused by factors like poverty, unemployment, single-parent households or racial discrimination.

(Fox Butterfield, Study Links Violence Rate to Cohesion in Community, NEW YORK TIMES, Aug. 17, 1997, § 1, p. 27.)

The authors of the study explained:

By far the greatest predictor of the violent crime was collective efficacy. . . a shared vision, a fusion of shared willingness of residents to intervene and social trust, a sense of engagement and ownership of public space. . . . In particular we believe that collective expectations for intervening on behalf of neighborhood children is a crucial dimension of the public life of neighborhoods.

The Time Dollar Youth Court is not enough. But it can provide a starting point and a catalyst.

Next steps

In Washington, D.C., the Time Dollar Youth Court has been adopted by the D.C. Coalition Against Drugs and Violence as the umbrella project under which a variety of programs and agency efforts can coalesce. The idea was not to ask agencies to adopt a new project, but rather to rethink how their present activities could be shaped to maximize the synergy with the Time Dollar Youth Court. Focusing on enhancing that synergy is producing a win-win strategy that is markedly different from the typical convert competition for limited dollars.

The Time Dollar Youth Court already brings youth together with other youth. It can cross neighborhoods and gang territories. It can also bring agencies and volunteers and young people together. As a catalyst, it can begin to create a culture of collective efficacy in which we, as a society, stop dumping our problems on the courts.

We hope to see the Time Dollar Youth Court emerge as a force that transforms juvenile justice: a catalyst through which youth can take the lead and provide an example to the entire community of what it means to say: "No more throw-away kids."

It will take all of us working together, but the Time Dollar Youth Court is demonstrating that young people themselves have much to teach us adults. We ought to listen, and, at the very least, we ought to join hands and give them the opportunity to show what they can do. It is awesome. n

Edgar S. Cahn, Ph.D., is president of the Time Dollar institute and a professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia; cofounder (with his late wife Jean Camper Cahn) of the national legal service program in the War on Poverty; cofounder and co-dean of Antioch School of Law. This article was written with the assistance of John Dortch, director of the Time Dollar Youth Court.