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Youth Courts of Alaska

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The United Youth Courts of Alaska held their 2021 statewide youth court virtually but this year the MatSu Youth Court hosted a live three day event over the first weekend of April.

There are 9 Youth

Court programs in Alaska: Anchorage Youth Court, MatSu Youth Court, North Star Youth Court, Kodiak

Teen Court, Nome Youth Court, Valdez Youth Court, Juneau Youth Court, Ketchikan Youth Court, and

Kenai Peninsula Youth Court (with branches in Kenai, Homer and Voznesenka). The United Youth Courts

of Alaska is their statewide organization dedicated to supporting and networking these programs and

there are substantial number of youth involved. The Kenai Peninsula group had five students in

attendance, two from Homer and the others from different spots up the Peninsula. I was able to join

them as a chaperone for the event and participate in all the features of the conference.

Youth Court provides the opportunity for young people who are accused of breaking the law to be

judged by their peers. This program is available as a service to students between the ages of 12 through

18. Youth Court members develop an understanding of law through legal education, Youth Court Bar

Association membership, and actual participation in Kenai Youth Court proceedings.

Ginny Espenshade is the Director of Kenai Peninsula Youth Court and talked to me more about the

organization and the statewide event when we got back to Homer.

“My name is Ginny Espenshade and I started as a volunteer with Kenai Peninsula Youth Court when it

started its first set of classes in 1996. It was modeled after the Anchorage youth court and the Matsu

Youth Court was also starting at the same time. The main ideas behind Youth Court are to give young

people who get in trouble with the law a second chance without having a permanent conviction or

adjudication on their record and also giving their peers a chance to help them and the theory being that

as adolescence get into that stage of their life they're paying more attention to what their peers say

than what adults say. And so this is a way to channel that positive peer pressure. So, then in 1997, Kenai

Peninsula Youth Court got grant funding from the Division of Juvenile Justice in the state and advertised

for a director and I applied for the job. And one of the motivations was how much I had enjoyed

teaching the classes for the Homer youth but also I wanted to make sure that the Homer program was

included in the peninsula wide nonprofit and then I've been doing it ever since then.”

“Ours is the only program in the state that has more than one location. So prior to the pandemic, we

were holding training classes in Kenai as well as in Homer and about every three years at the head of the

bay communities of Voznesenka, Razdolna and Kachemak Selo. And then we also would go to those

communities to hold our cases. We have a lot of support from the school district and we have support

from the court system as far as using their facilities, their courtrooms. We continue to get State funding

from the Division of Juvenile Justice. The types of cases that get referred to Youth Court, a lot of people

are familiar with like a mock trial program where they're hypothetical cases, but in Youth Court, we're

actually dealing with actual cases involving their peers. And so the types of referrals we get are

underage drinking cases referred to us by the district court judges in Homer and Kenai and the other

types of misdemeanors like shoplifting, minor assaults, small amounts of marijuana possession or use

that come to us through the juvenile justice system and in both those matters the students in Youth

Court decide the consequences for the offense with an eye towards restorative justice to help that

youth get back on a better path.”

I ask her to tell me a little more about how the proceedings operate.

“The actual Youth Court proceedings is all student voices. The defense attorneys are students the

prosecutors are students and the judges are students. We partner with the court system and often our

local judges help train our students. There are youth courts all over the country and actually all over the

world now, but Alaska has one of the most broad and deep authorization statutes to the youth courts

that we can determine guilt or innocence with certain types of cases, and we also have the authority in

all of our cases to decide consequences.”

Do you want to talk a little bit about the annual conference trip?

“Sure, the there's a Statewide Association and I like to brag about this because it was created by a

Homer student, Loren Abshure. We went to a conference probably in 1998 or 1999 in Anchorage. And

there was a lot of discussion about how we should have a Statewide Association to network because

once a year was the only time we got together for the conference and Loren stayed up the whole night

developing a proposal and ask for time from the coordinator of the conference and he proposed it and

he said anyone who wants to start this Statewide Association, we'll meet in the adjoining room during

lunch and then he did his senior project the following year setting up this non-profit, the United Youth

Courts of Alaska and it's really fortunate he did because that became a mechanism to ensure that we did

have conferences. We tried to rotate them around the state so every program in the state gets to show

off their community and experience the fun and the it's really hard work to host a conference. So we've

had two in Kenai and to in Homer the last one in Homer was 2013. So we're due to host another one

soon. The conferences bring the students together with their adult directors and board members or

parent chaperones. It's a lot of cross training a lot of networking and then we try to do some activities

where the kids get to know each other. Some of my favorite conferences have been in Nome. We also

had a terrific time in Sitka and we've been to Fairbanks several times, Kodiak several times Valdez twice.

This was just the second time Mat-Su hosted the conference.”

Some of the events the students got to participate in this year were: a keynote address from speaker

Hasan Davis, “Hope Dealer,” viewing the film “Like,” a documentary about finding balance in our digital

world and the unsettling reality of technology addiction, Project Drive sponsored by the Homer Police

Department, a reentry simulation activity and question and answer session with an Alaska state judge

panel.