JERSEY CITY -- Thirty-one high school students became the first teens inducted as judges, lawyers and jurors in Jersey City's youth court, a new initiative aimed at teaching young people about the criminal justice system and keeping them out of it.
The court, officially called the Jersey City Youth Counsel, is expected to start hearing cases soon at the municipal court complex on Summit Avenue. It will be one of over 1,000 similar youth courts nationwide, including one in Newark.
Every teen inducted Wednesday is a Jersey City high school student. Lucinda J. McLaughlin, a former Union County prosecutor who will oversee the city initiative, said the group is diverse: 70 percent speak a language other than English, 20 percent were born outside of the United States and 83 percent have been on the honor roll.
Some aren't strangers to trouble themselves. McLaughlin said 7 percent have been arrested.
"This is a story about young people who are stepping forward to make a real difference in their community," Deputy Mayor Vivian Brady-Phillips said at Wednesday night's induction ceremony at City Hall.
Teens will be sent to youth court for low-level offenses like fighting, negative behavior or outbursts toward teachers and truancy. They will have to agree to go through the process. Typical punishments will be orders to perform community service or write letters of apology
The court officers inducted last night, among 200 who expressed interest, attended nearly 50 hours of classes plus 15 hours of mock trials. Kalimah A. Ahmad, a municipal court judge and former councilwoman, helped train them on everything from how judges and lawyers act in court to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
One of her pupils in the process was Justin Howard, 17, who attends Renaissance Institute, a public-school program for students in danger of not graduating on time for various factors. He said he joined up to "help other kids just like me."
Howard, who is graduating in June, said he had not given college a thought until he began training for the youth court. Now, he said, he's been accepted into three colleges so far. Ahmad inspired him, he said.
"She grew up in the projects and now she's a judge," Howard told The Jersey Journal. "She grew up a hard life and I grew up a hard life. She came to be what she is and now I can, too."
Ahmad was overwhelmed when she heard Howard speak about her influence on him. She said many of the teens were astonished to hear she attended Ferris High School.
"I never even thought about the impact I would have," she said. "In their minds, kids from Ferris don't become judges."
Mayor Steve Fulop said the court will provide troubled teens with "positive peer pressure." Fulop last night called the court an attempt to help fix some of the long-term problems affecting Jersey City youth.
"Adults and parents don't necessarily know everything," he said last night. "Having students at the table is a step in the right direction."
Terrence T. McDonald may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @terrencemcd. Find The Jersey Journal on Facebook.
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