The Independence Youth Court (IYC) is a diversion program for young offenders. The primary goal of the IYC is to reduce the occurrence of juvenile crime by diverting youth from the traditional juvenile justice system and providing an alternative to formal processing.
The IYC was established in 1985 in Jackson County, Mo., as a collaborative effort between the Jackson County Bar Association, the Juvenile Division of the Jackson County Family Court, the City of Independence, and the Independence Police Department.
Teen courts, or youth courts, have grown in popularity throughout the United States in recent years, as they provide juveniles with an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system. A teen court does not function as a traditional juvenile court, nor is it a type of problem-solving court. Instead, teen courts are diversion programs for juveniles. Founded on the belief that an association with prosocial peers may have a positive impact on deviant youth, teen courts are structured in a manner that allows youths—whether strictly participating as volunteers or as a condition of their sentence in another case—to serve as court clerks, bailiffs, attorneys, jurors, or on occasion even judges. Overall, in an effort to reduce the recidivism rate of juveniles, teen courts seek to take advantage of an adolescent’s desire to be accepted and included by developing a courtroom model that is operated by prosocial peers, with limited adult intervention (Butts and Ortiz 2011).
The IYC uses a youth judge model, meaning there are no juries for the cases. Instead, youth attorneys present the case to a youth judge who is responsible for the sentencing decision. Although the youth judge is responsible for overseeing all cases and passing various sentences, the program’s presiding judge speaks with the defendant and his or her parents following the sentencing decision to ensure all parties understand the sentence and the overall diversionary process of teen courts.
The IYC also provides youth with the opportunity to plead not guilty during their first appearance in the program. A not guilty plea results in a trial, which typically requires the defendant, victim (if any), and any witnesses to be present during the trial. Following the trial, the youth judge is responsible for determining the defendant’s guilt in the particular case. Although youths may be found not guilty, they must still comply with their original diversion agreements or they will be transferred back to the Jackson County Family Court, where their case will be processed through the traditional juvenile justice system.
Over 500 cases a year are diverted to the IYC, typically involving first-time offenders charged with minor offenses such as shoplifting, truancy, or vandalism. Occasionally, the IYC will hear cases involving status offenses, third-degree assault, and minor drug and alcohol violations. To be eligible for diversion to the IYC, defendants must be at least 7 years old, but not older than 16. Youth volunteers must be at least 13, and if serving as an attorney or judge, volunteers must pass a youth bar exam. A typical proceeding averages about 10 minutes. However, a trial can last 30 minutes to 1 hour. Defendants are eligible for diversion to the IYC on more than one occasion as long as their offenses are minor. The vast majority of referrals to the IYC are made by police, while a smaller number of referrals are made by local schools.
7 to 16
Analyzing the 6-month recidivism data, Butts, Buck, and Coggeshall (2002) found that youths in the Independence Youth Court (IYC) were significantly less likely to reoffend compared with youths in the comparison group. Specifically, the study found that 9 percent of youths in the IYC reoffended, whereas 28 percent of youths in the comparison group reoffended.