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Inside the Court Where the Presiding Judge Is a Teenager

A Brownsville Youth Court judge. Photo: Jason Nocito

G had managed to become an 18-year-old high-school senior without ever once being arrested, which is not as easy as it sounds when you grow up in the projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn, erstwhile home to Mike Tyson and the murder capital of New York. G’s arrest-free run, however, came to an end a few weeks ago, when he found himself engaged in a little dust-up at the school lunch room. It wasn’t even G’s beef. He was just sitting there with a friend when this guy came up and accused G’s buddy of messing with his girlfriend. G took his friend’s side; some harsh words were exchanged. Not that G thought much about it until after school when he was waiting at the B15-bus stop. There was that guy again, with his crew. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going to happen next, especially after the guy smacked G in the face. G responded by body-slamming the guy, busting up his face some, then running like hell. The next morning, they got G out of class and took him down to the principal’s office, where two cops from the 67th Precinct were waiting. This was how G came to be what they call a “respondent” at the Youth Court of the Brownsville Community Justice Center.

Down at Youth Court on Rockaway Avenue, there was nothing particularly unusual about G’s story. Since 2011, the court, where local teens ages 14 to 18 volunteer to serve as the judges, juries, and advocates, has heard around 250 similar cases a year. “Fights in school, shoplifting, truancy, pot smoking,” said the project director, Lisa Bernard. “Whatever the authorities don’t have the time, energy, or interest to deal with except to put young people into the system.” Some of the kids who volunteer have legal ambitions, but others have, themselves, previously been through the Youth Court as respondents.

Not that G knew anything about that. He never heard of the Brownsville Youth Court before the cops gave him the piece of paper telling him where to show up. Arriving in baggy khakis and headphones, G evidenced a wary attitude as he met with Mikala Greenridge, 18, who as his “youth advocate” was assigned to plead his case. This was a stroke of luck for G, since Mikala was forthright in her belief that the court was one great big civics lesson for young people to help each other “figure out how the world works, since most adults either don’t know, or frankly don’t care, how we think and what to do about it except to hand out punishment.”

Photo: Jason Nocito

Standard definitions of G’s possible guilt or innocence did not come up during the interview. Instead, Mikala asked G whether he had clear goals for the future and if he thought of himself as a role model for anyone in the community. Thinking this over, G said, “Well, I’m not a saint,” but he did feel the need to set a good example for his younger cousins. Asked if he felt he had anyone to apologize to for what happened, G said he felt justified since it was “basically self-­defense” but that he’d already told his mom how sorry he was for “stressing her out.” Upon further contemplation, he added that maybe he should watch who he chilled with.

Still, G was apprehensive. Sounding more like a slightly frightened kid than the potential social problem he might have been seen as in a typical Brooklyn courtroom, he said, “I just hope the judge isn’t mean.”

On this account, G’s fears were soon put to rest, since the “judge” turned out to be a poker-faced 16-year-old attired in nifty horn-rim glasses. The first person to speak was a 17-year-old “community advocate” (something like the prosecutor) who asked the jury to consider “the negative effects” G’s altercation may have had on Brownsville. These included the possibility of “increased police activity” in the area, which was nothing anyone present deemed a good thing. The jury, six young women, asked questions primarily pertaining to what G might have learned from the incident.

Photo: Jason Nocito

In view of G’s apology to his mother and general regret, it was recommended that he attend workshops on conflict resolution and employment readiness. After the final gavel, G anxiously asked project director Bernard if the proceedings were “going to go on my record.” Informed no, he smiled for the first time. Plus, the jury, aware of G’s interest in owning a fashion business, had suggested he enroll in a skills class in which he’d get some practical experience and be paid a small stipend. “Paid?” G asked incredulously.

Of course, no one was going to make him go to the workshops. But if he didn’t, the Youth Court would have no alternative but to inform the city of his noncompliance, after which his case would be resubmitted to the Brooklyn courts. No problem with that, G said, standing up. “I’ll be there.”

*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Inside the Court Where the Judge Is a Teenager