Nassau County Youth Court changing the lives of young people

Stacey Sager Image
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
The court where teens try the cases
Stacey Sager has the latest details.

HEMPSTEAD, Long Island (WABC) -- There's a different kind of court on Long Island. They are defendants who are young, ages 11 to 17, whose cases are tried by young people.

Hundreds of cases have come through Nassau County Youth Court, the largest of its kind in the Tri-State Area, and the only one in New York run by a district attorney.

"So they're real-life cases brought to the court," Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said. "They've already agreed to plead guilty, and so now, this is the sentencing phase."

Unlike other courts, jurors can ask the defendant tough questions, such as, "how are you going to control the people drinking at your party?" and "so you were not punished at home at all?"

Some of them are serving this time as part of their own sentence for a crime. Jason Williams, for example, got a pretty hefty sentence a year ago for menacing.

"It was nerve wracking, because I knew that the jury would be a bunch of kids my age, around my age," he said. "So it's like, in my head...I was like, OK, I could probably fool an adult, not somebody my age. They'll poke holes everywhere."

Now, he comes back to volunteer, calling youth court a game changer.

"Now I want to go to Albany's 3-plus-3 law and bachelor degree program," he said.

It's an idea Singas hopes will have an impact on young lives.

"We're taking this time to turn the crisis that happened in their lives into an opportunity," she said.

Now, like in any court case, the jurors deliberate, except it's much shorter. The process could take anywhere from about 5 minutes to 20 minutes.

Under legislation recently signed by New York's governor, younger teens will not do prison time. Instead, they will do community service, write a letter of apology, and partake in an activity to potentially change their lives.

Fewer than 10 percent of these kids will commit crimes in the future, and some of the volunteers are bound for Harvard and Yale. They'll meet kids who seem so different on the surface, and learn from each other.