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High schoolers turned judges, attorneys and juries will try real-life cases in upcoming youth court program

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Next week, high school students from Greenport, Mattituck and Southold will begin training for Southold Town’s first-ever youth court program.

Spearheaded by youth bureau director Lynn Nyilas, the program uses positive peer pressure and restorative justice to deal with real juvenile offenders, turning everyday high school students into judges, attorneys and juries.

Youth court programs have popped up all over the world; according to the National Association of Youth Courts, there are over 1,000 programs in operation in the U.S. alone.

Here’s how it works:

Youth court members (students in grades nine through 12) receive training in how to be a defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, bailiff, clerk and jury member. Each student trains for all the roles so that once trials begin, they will be able to rotate their positions.

Juvenile offenders are referred to youth court from either a school system, local police or the probation department. Typical offenses include vandalism, theft, alcohol offenses and disorderly conduct. No violent, felony or gang related cases are tried in youth court and Southold Town Police Juvenile Aid Bureau officer William Brewer will oversee which referred cases are appropriate for trial.

The offender and his/her parent sign a consent form stating that they will accept the sentencing imposed by the youth court. Youth court sentences often involve community service and all attempts are made to match up respondents with a sentence that is appropriate to the crime they’ve committed.

“The idea is to turn the offenders around,” says Nyilas, the youth court coordinator. “We hope to get them to take a different path or perhaps connect with a mentor.”

Once the offender has signed the consent form, a trial is held with youth court members taking on the roles of defense and prosecuting attorneys, judge, clerk, bailiff and jury. Once the youth court makes a decision, the offender is required to follow through on the sentence. If they don’t, they will be sent back to where they were referred from and will deal with the consequences imposed by the school, police or probation department.

Training for North Fork youth court participants runs from November through February and the group will be ready to hold trials after that.

If there are no referrals at that time, they will hold mock trials until a case is brought to them. All trials will take place at Southold Town Hall in the courtroom, said Nyilas, and training and trials take place after school hours on Thursday evenings.

“It’s very exciting,” said Nyilas. “We’ve had the full support of all the school administrators and a good number of students have already signed up.”

If you are a student in grades nine through 12 at Greenport, Mattituck or Southold High School and would like to join, contact Lynn Nyilas at 631 765-8251 or email her at [email protected]

Katharine is a writer and photographer who has lived on the North Fork for nearly 40 years, except for three-plus years in Hong Kong a decade ago, working for the actor Jackie Chan. She lives in Cutchogue. Email Katharine