Successful program puts a spotlight on youth helping youth
Every day, young people are arrested for minor offenses from trespassing on private property to shoplifting at local department stores. As part of the Floral Park Police Department’s new Youth Court initiative, first-time offenders of non-violent crimes are being given a second chance through a juvenile justice alternative operated by their peers.
With more than 80 youth courts operating throughout New York State, Youth Court programs are overseen by volunteer lawyers, judges, educators, law enforcement officials or community members, according to the website of the New York Association of Youth Courts. The courts use “positive peer pressure to ensure that young people who commit even minor offenses give back to the community and avoid further entanglement with the justice system.” Youth Courts can take various forms and sanctions including community service, letters of apology, behavior modification classes, essays and counseling, according to the New York Association of Youth Courts.
Sgt. Will Doherty and Officer John Groshans, of the Floral Park Police Department, have been instrumental in implementing and coordinating a local Youth Court program. An attorney and a member of the force since 2000, Doherty approached FPPD School Resource Officer Groshans with the idea to bring the initiative to students in the community and the project soon took flight. After researching other similar programs on Long Island and in Nassau County, the duo pitched the idea to Police Commissioner Stephen McAllister, who gave the final go ahead.
In March of this year, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice announced that her office’s Youth Court program partnered with Hofstra Law School for training at Hempstead Village Hall. According to the DA’s office, high school student volunteers were taught the process of a criminal trial, court procedures and the roles of attorneys, judges, witnesses, court officers and jurors. Prosecutors, a local defense attorney and Hofstra University law students conducted the training and helped oversee the court.
Following the Nassau County Youth Court model, Doherty emphasized that the program is designed for first-time non-violent offenders who are under the age of 16. “In order to be accepted, they have to basically plead guilty and by doing that their case gets docketed to a Youth Court and they are judged by Youth Court kids, such as mock trial club members, and some past offenders,” he explained.
For a low-crime community like Floral Park, Doherty explained that the process offers many benefits for youth and their families. “It would be very good for Floral Park. It saves money and the parents don’t have to get attorneys and the kids don’t have to be turned off to the criminal justice system. They don’t have to stand in front of a judge, they stand in front of a Youth Court,” he said.
A 22-year FPPD veteran, Officer Groshans concurred that the program can be instrumental in helping youth from going down the wrong path. “It’s a get out of jail free card for one time. If a kid makes a mistake, he doesn’t have to pay for it forever,” Groshans said.
Students from Floral Park Memorial’s Mock Trial Club have already participated in hearing cases and expressed their enthusiasm for future opportunities to be involved. “We actually trained about 11 kids at a three-day-long training program at Hofstra University Law School over the summer in conjunction with Nassau County Youth Court,” Doherty said. “They loved it; they had a great time.”
Nationwide, the program has already proven to be a useful tool in deterring youth crimes, according to Doherty. “There are many documented cases where youths who have gotten in trouble with the law have been fortunate to participate in local youth courts and ultimately go on to succeed in endeavors such as law school, rather than re-offend, get suspended from school and not pursue their academic careers,” he said.
While the Floral Park Police Department is currently fielding new Youth Court cases to Nassau County, Groshans hopes to create a standalone program in the near future. “We’re starting off small right now because we don’t want to fail…We have a lot of interest from the parents and from the kids, so I envision this is going to be around. I’m hoping to grow it more and more each year,” he said.
“One of the most important things for me is that we make a friend for the police of kids. I don’t want kids disliking us because they are 16 and looking to get in trouble or younger than that and are afraid to like us. It’s important to me and John that we have a good relationship with them,” Doherty added.