Sixteen-year-old Madison Brewer stood behind the podium and addressed six people seated in the jury box at Southold Town Justice Court earlier this month.
As defense attorney for “Patricia Harris,” Madison was explaining why her client — who was caught with marijuana at a school football game — didn’t deserve to be harshly punished.
“As the evidence will show, this is the textbook example of a teenager that was constantly targeted by mean girls and felt like she had nowhere to turn,” Madison said.
After completing her opening statement, Madison was critiqued by local attorney Emily Fialkowski. Ms. Fialkowski is acting as a mentor to the students in Southold Town Youth Court, in which Madison is a member.
Initiated in November, the Youth Court involves students in grades 9 through 12 from schools across the North Fork, who try hypothetical cases, like that of Ms. Harris, to learn the ins and outs of court proceedings.
But come March, Youth Court members will begin trying cases with real defendants charged with real offenses.
During trials, court members will act as judge, jurors and attorneys for both prosecution and defense. The sentences the court hands out — which can include community service, serving as a juror for other cases or writing letters of apology — are binding and must be carried out, said Youth Court director Lynn Nyilas.
“They’re basically learning all of the parts they have in a regular courtroom,” Ms. Nyilas said. “They learn how to deliberate and come up with a disposition for the respondent and how to write open and closing statements. And they learn to present and public speaking and how to have empathy toward the respondent.”
Ms. Nyilas said one of the benefits for the Youth Court defendants is that their files are sealed after they complete their sentences. Once they turn 21, those records are destroyed, so mistakes won’t follow them as they apply for jobs and pursue educational opportunities.
Examples of misdeeds that could land a teen in Youth Court include trespassing, larceny or making graffiti. Additionally, the Youth Court is partnering with local school districts and will hear cases involving students who’ve broken codes of conduct.
The trials, all held at Town Hall, can involve incidents that occurred anywhere in Southold Town. Ms. Nyilas said cases will be referred by school districts and the police department.
“The whole point is restorative justice,” she said. “It’s to make them accountable for their actions.”
The members of this year’s inaugural Youth Court, who were sworn in at a ceremony on Feb. 8, said they’re excited to start trying real cases and put all they’ve been learning to work.
“I’ve always had an interest in law and I thought this was a perfect way to try it out,” said Chris Imbriano, 16. “Helping the community and help kids that might otherwise be treated like criminals is a bonus.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing if this is something I want to pursue in my life,” said Emma Quarty, 15. “And to get out of my comfort zone.”
Youth Court meets every Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Southold Town Justice Court. Teenagers interested in joining can contact Ms. Nyilas at [email protected]holdtownny.gov.
Top photo caption: A Southold Town Youth Court volunteer reads her opening statement to other volunteers and mentors during a recent meeting. (Credit: Nicole Smith)