Newark High School sophomore Alexandra Briggs was pretty sure she wanted to become a lawyer in 2012 after she spent two days shadowing Geneva attorney Jessica Bryant in Wayne County Family Court.
Now, after serving three months on the Ontario County Youth Court and joining its steering committee, Briggs knows she wants to pursue a career in law and become a defense attorney.
After all, this role is the one she most enjoys on Youth Court.
Briggs said she likes advocating for the best sentence for so-called respondents, which can range from community service to restitution, substance abuse education, shoplifting education, and/or writing essays or apology letters.
Youth Court is a voluntary alternative to the traditional criminal justice system for first-time offenders ages 10-17 and people who confessed to committing certain school code of conduct breaches, violations or misdemeanors. All cases are nonviolent and nonsexual. Respondents who choose to appear before Youth Court have their case heard by a jury of their peers, avoid attorney fees, are not labeled a juvenile delinquent and have no criminal record.
Referrals come from the Ontario County Probation Department, Ontario County Sheriff’s Office, Canandaigua and Geneva city police departments, Ontario County school resource officers and Ontario County school districts. Past cases include shoplifting, harassment/bullying, trespassing, criminal mischief, alcohol/drug possession, burglary, arson and vandalism.
Ontario County Youth Court follows restorative justice practices under three main guidelines that are detailed on the Youth Court website. Visit ontariocountyyouthcourt.org for information.
Youth Court members are students in grades 8-12 who complete a 20-hour training program to fill the various roles of the courtroom. Youth Court is conducted by real judges, attorneys, probation officers, law enforcement and other professionals. Students assume the roles of judge, bailiff, prosecution, defense attorneys and jurors after they meet the training requirements, pass a “bar” exam, go through interviews and are inducted.
Yvonne Vazquez, program director, said Briggs shines in the courtroom.
“She’s an amazing young lady and very mature for her age,” Vazquez said. “I’ve seen her in the courtroom and she’s amazing. She’s not shy. She asks amazing questions. She thinks outside the box.’’
Vazquez said students who participate in Youth Court develop leadership skills and a greater level of confidence. She noted that most members start as freshmen in high school and continue for all four years until they graduate, which is Briggs’ plan.
“I’ve always been interested in helping others and Youth Court gives me the ability to learn the law as well as help others,” Briggs said. “This challenges my thinking to create statements and questions on the spot, which may happen when I am a lawyer in the future. The one thing I have learned from Youth Court is not to judge someone because of their actions, but to hear them out. I will forever be grateful to be learning at such a young age and I couldn’t be more thankful for this opportunity.”
Briggs became interested in participating in Youth Court in 2017 after she read an article posted by Principal Tom Roote in his newsletter, The Reds Tale.
Briggs is on the NHS girls varsity swimming and diving team and Blue Wave diving team in Geneseo, which takes up most of her free time throughout the week. Although her involvement with Youth Court is an additional time commitment, Briggs said it was well worth it. She has the opportunity to participate in four Youth Court sessions each month, but will most likely do two or three depending on her schedule.
“It’s kind of humbling to help other people who have made some poor choices,” she said. “It’s changing me as a person. I represent them and am their voice. It’s also an eye-opener to see what can happen when peer pressure kicks in and sometimes leads to bad decisions.”
Briggs said Youth Court made her more confident, bolstered her public speaking skills and gave her a sense that she’s doing something worthwhile. She plans to continue on Youth Court until she graduates.
“It just makes you a better person,” she said.
Briggs was happy to learn that a Youth Court is being launched in Wayne County . The Wayne County Youth Court will hold its first court session on Oct. 10 at Lyons Town Court.
James Schuler, program coordinator of the Wayne County Youth Advocate Program, will serve as coordinator for Wayne County Youth Court. He said 11 students from Clyde-Savannah, Lyons, Newark, Sodus and Williamson high schools will participate. They completed the required training provided by the Wayne County Attorney’s Office, Wayne County Probation and Wayne County YAP. Training was provided by Schuler; Erin Hammond, assistant Wayne County attorney; Greg Caster, a Wayne County Probation supervisor; and Jay Roscup, coordinator of community schools services for Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES.
NHS junior Tahjmere Greene and senior Connor Robbins are members of the new Wayne County Youth Court. Under the sponsorship of the My Brother’s Keeper program, the new Youth Court will start training for more student members at a later date.
According to its mission statement, the Wayne County Youth Court “will seek to hold youth responsible for their actions while also helping them become positively connected to their peers and the community. Youth volunteers will learn about the legal and judicial processes while also serving as positive role models for their peers and encouraging them to engage in pro-social behavior. Youth Court will be based in restorative justice principles emphasizing accountability and the repair of harm. Youth Court will serve as an alternative to formal diversion programs and school disciplinary practices.”
Students in grades 10-12 who are interested in becoming a member of Wayne County Youth Court can email jschuler@yapinc.org or call/text (315) 226-2555 for information. Applications are available at high school guidance offices.