Antelope Valley Community Youth Court
As children are Lancaster’s future and most valued resource, the City provides quite a number of opportunities for youth to become law-abiding productive citizens. However, there has occurred a growing number of young people who were becoming entangled within the juvenile court system. As such, Lancaster needed to address the issue of first-time, non-violent offenders. To that end, Lancaster created the Antelope Valley Community Youth Court, a proactive prevention and intervention program which follows the principles of restorative justice to help juveniles (ages 12 to 17) establish accountability for their actions, in addition to providing educational services.
The City of Lancaster is located in the Antelope Valley region, approximately 70 miles northeast of metropolitan Los Angeles. One of the fastest growing cities in the state, Lancaster’s population was 118,718 in 2000. The population now exceeds 157,000. In 2010, persons 5 to 19 years composed nearly 26 percent of the total population. By 2020, Lancaster’s estimated population is predicted to reach 215,468. The community covers more than 94-square miles. In addition, due to its extensive size and distance from the Los Angeles basin, the average daily commute time for Lancaster’s residents—including working parents—is 67 minutes.
During the past few years, Lancaster experienced a high truancy rate which led to an increase in daytime crime such as home burglaries, petty theft and vandalism, especially from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm while most parents are at work. The impact on schools was expensive as excessive absences can cost school districts thousands of dollars per student, yet the schools still need to pay teachers, administrators and other costs.
Research linking truancy to daytime burglary and vandalism suggests that truancy is a "gateway to crime." Those who are arrested once often begin a life that can lead to unemployment, multiple arrests, criminal convictions, and for some, incarceration.
In 2011, almost 1,000 youths were cited or booked by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department–Lancaster Station for violations of a variety of city ordinances or criminal codes. Of those juveniles taken into custody, nearly 600 had no prior criminal record.
To prevent more of Lancaster’s juveniles from being exposed to criminal elements and becoming tomorrow’s criminals, the City’s challenge was to disrupt that cycle at the first arrest, and establish a diversion program modeled on restorative justice principles for the youth who had no prior criminal record and who accepted responsibility for their actions.
To deter first-time, non-violent offenders (ages 12 to 17), who have not yet become entrenched in the juvenile criminal justice system, Lancaster staff created an alternative diversion program, the Antelope Valley Community Youth Court (AVCYC), which is based on restorative justice, as previously referenced.
Restorative justice is a voluntary program which focuses on the needs of the victim and the suspect. Juveniles are given the opportunity to repair the harm they have done by writing letters of apology, returning any property taken, or performing community service.
The AVCYC has three goals: (1) promote life skills for self-control and lawful behavior; (2) foster community citizenship and ownership and (3) provide immediate attention and response, linking the offense to a logical consequence. The City’s court partners include the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department-Lancaster Station, the Master of Social Work Programs at two California State Universities (Bakersfield and Northridge), several counseling services and three local attorneys.
Most of the Court’s cases pertain to habitual truancy; fighting in public/school grounds; daytime and nighttime loitering; trespassing; petty theft; and possession of tobacco, alcohol and marijuana.
Juveniles who receive a citation or are arrested by Lancaster Station personnel and identified as first-time offenders can have their cases referred to the AVCYC for follow-up. Referrals can also be made by local schools and parents.
Each case is assigned to a university social work intern (case worker), who reaches out to the child’s parent(s) to determine the level of interest in participating in the program. If the parents and juvenile are interested, they are invited to a case screening where the case worker interviews them separately. The case worker will also administer a validated screening instrument to determine the types and levels of youth/family needs.
If the case is found to be appropriate for AVCYC, a court date is set. Held in City Hall Council Chambers, the court consists of one of the three attorneys performing the role of the judge, trained juvenile peer jurors, three city staff, a deputy, a volunteer jury supervisor and the defendants. During a defendant’s case, the judge reviews the charge and asks preliminary questions of the youth and parents. Teen jurors are then permitted to ask questions of the youth and parents. The questioning often reveals other home and school problems. When questioning is completed, the jurors deliberate and develop a sentence which may include, but not limited to letters of apology, community service, future AVCYC jury service, drug testing, relevant essays and individual or family counseling. The parents may also be sentenced to parenting classes. Normally, the sentence is to be completed within a 60-day period and the case worker handles the follow-up to ensure compliance.
When the juveniles complete their sentences, they and their family are invited to a quarterly completion ceremony where they are honored by members of the City Council or Criminal Justice Commission and a commander from the Sheriff Station. The ceremony is emceed by a Sheriff’s Department civilian employee who is also the jury supervisor.
Lancaster’s Antelope Valley Community Youth Court helps juveniles establish accountability for their actions; provides educational services for offenders and; promotes long-term mutual respect leading to enhanced public safety. The benefits for participants who are first-time offenders of non-violent crimes (only misdemeanor offenses), ages 12 to 17, accept responsibility for their offense and complete the program include; (1) acquiring citizenship skills, (2) learning how to make better life decisions, and (3) having no permanent criminal record.
Since its inception in 2010, more than 700 youth have been referred to the youth court as first time offenders, and about half have chosen to participate in the program. During the 2011 calendar year, the Youth Court had 255 cases referred to it. Of these cases, 128 of them were attached to truancy problems. During 2012, the AVCYC had 338 cases referred. Of those cases, 83 successfully completed the program.
Lancaster’s AVCYC program would not be successful without its vital community volunteers. In 2012, three volunteer lawyers and 135 volunteer youth jurors interested in their community as well as the judicial system participated. Volunteers are required to participate in hour-long training sessions which are offered 12 times per year. Several of the jurors have informed city staff that they have gone on to participate in the California Youth Court Summit, which is sponsored by the California Association of Youth Courts, Inc.
A program evaluation is currently being conducted by graduate students from the CSU Bakersfield Social Work Program to better determine the effectiveness of the court processes. The program has enjoyed strong participation by both parents and juveniles in counseling, while most juveniles have shown improvement in grades, school attendance, and not returning to the court system.
When people are empowered to take care of their community—ownership—the community atmosphere can change dramatically. The City of Lancaster’s Antelope Valley Court AVCYC is a successful diversion program which brings people together from a variety of disciplines, working collaboratively to positively impact the lives of hundreds of our community’s youth.