If kids in Newark or Jersey City get in trouble for committing a low-level crime, they could wind up a in court run entirely by their own peers.

Youth Court is a diversionary program for juveniles charged with minor offenses, where the lawyers, judge and members of the jury are teenagers from the same area as defendant

“They actually hear the matter and then make a determination as to what should be the appropriate disposition, the punishment involved,” said Kevin Callahan, a retired state Superior Court judge and a professor of criminal justice at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City.

He explained what happens before a Youth Court trial can begin is the defendant and their parent or guardian must agree to participate, and the teen charged with the offense must admit they were involved in the matter and responsible for what happened.

Additionally, the county prosecutor and the victim must also agree to move forward.

“It’s a type of restorative justice. The victim in the matter is very involved, brought together face to face with the person who committed the offense, so he or she can understand the impact their action had,” said Callahan.

Youth Court is only for first-time offenders involved with minor offenses, such as graffiti, damaging a vehicle or a home, or some other similar crime.

Callahan says the idea is for the teen who has committed the offense to hear from other teens who live in the same community that they’ve done something wrong that deserves a punishment.

“This is not a parent or a guardian meting out justice, or a group of adults as a jury. Hopefully that has more of an impact on him, so that his peers are saying this is the wrong thing to do,” said Callahan.

He also stressed the other juveniles who are involved in Youth Court get a benefit as well.

“In a very positive way and they come away perhaps understanding the system a little better, understanding that they’re fortunate and do not want themselves to be in the place of the accused, and the experience may also help them see the justice system in a better light,” he said.

Cel Zalkind, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, believes Youth Court presents a very exciting opportunity.

She said we’ve been moving as a state for many years in the direction of prevention and deterrence with all different kinds of programs, but this one is unique.

“It engages the individual’s peers. It uses youth to run the program and I think that has many benefits and it certainly might influence the young person who has committed some minor offense to take it more seriously,” she said. “But it also develops and encourages leadership in the youth who are running the program. I think this could work in different towns all over New Jersey.”

Callahan agrees.

“By involving local teens in this process we can perhaps shed a positive light and maybe change a number of lives around from going down the wrong path,” he said.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.