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The Dangers of Municipal Courts for Youth

December 17, 2015
Zoe Schein

The juvenile justice system was created to hold youth accountable for their actions while acknowledging that “accountability” might mean something different for young people than for adults. While youth justice reformers work diligently to ensure that juvenile courts live up to this purpose, there also exists the growing problem of “shadow” courts: municipal courts that allow law enforcement to sidestep the youth justice system, with potentially serious consequences.

As researcher Mae Quinn of Washington University School of Law's Juvenile Justice Clinic (an NJJN member) points out in her new article, “In Loco Juvenile Justice: Minors in Munis, Cash from Kids, and Adolescent Pro Se Advocacy – Ferguson and Beyond,” in many places, localities have the option of processing young people’s low-level offenses (such as traffic or ordinance violations) through municipal courts rather than the juvenile court system. Such diversions are problematic when one considers that in most cases, access to counsel in these municipal courts is nearly non-existent: in Colorado, for example, public defenders are prohibited from representing clients in municipal court. Without representation, youth whose cases are processed through these courts often have no way of understanding court processes, which have a host of potential direct and collateral consequences including fines, fees, warrants for a young person’s arrest for failure to pay fines or meet conditions, and in some cases, jail time.

Thanks in part to the advocacy of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center (an NJJN member), Colorado passed a bill (H.B. 15-1022) in 2015 that gives municipalities the opportunity to partially address the issues of prosecution of youth in municipal court. Under H.B. 15-1022, Colorado municipalities have the opportunity to create a “petty ticket” procedure separate from court processing for first-time, low-level offenses. For those municipalities that elect to do so, young people who receive a petty ticket would be required to meet with a family member and an assessment officer or screening team to create a behavioral contract, wherein the young person would come to an agreement on how to remedy their behavior without the cost, trauma, and collateral consequences of formal prosecution. If the behavior contract is honored, the young person will never be processed through the court system. The procedure is elective, and it remains to be seen whether Colorado’s courts and police districts will opt-in. Still, the state has opened the door for better court processes, and hopefully other states will begin to tackle the problem. 

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