Back when U.S. District Court Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. was a Rochester City Court judge he recognized that many of the young defendants that came before him had troubled lives with a multitude of issues that regular courts were not equipped to address.
There was no real opportunity to delve into their backgrounds to determine what got them involved in criminal activity in the first place and get them back on track.
So Geraci spearheaded the creation of Rochester Teen Court, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
At the discretion of a Rochester City Court Judge, and sometimes a town justice, a youth who pleads guilty to charges will have their sentence determined in Teen Court, where they will be represented by a teen “attorney,” and sentenced by a teen jury, consisting of teen volunteers and other teens who previously were defendants in Teen Court.
The Teen Court program is managed by the Center for Youth, which offers a variety of services to young people. Teen Court sessions are held monthly, in real courtrooms, with a real judge presiding.
The defendant takes the witness stand while the teen attorneys ask questions that encourage the defendant to reflect on their actions. They ask about details of the crime, how the defendant got involved, the impact to the victim, the defendant’s living situation, their goals, and interests and how the court and the Center for Youth can help them.
Sentences are designed to help the defendant evaluate their situation and steer their life in a positive direction. All teen defendants must serve as jurors at least once.
Defendants are often sentenced to community service, counseling sessions, authoring an essay about their goals or writing an apology to the victim, or obtaining a GED.
“I see it really as a listening court where we’re talking — not about penalties for criminal conduct, but rather trying to find out the reason why they got involved in the criminal conduct and helping to build up these individuals,” said Geraci, who presided over a Teen Court session on April 19 in his courtroom in the Kenneth B. Keating Federal Building.
“It was designed to be a diversion program for first-time youthful offenders,” said Elaine Spaull, executive director of the Center for Youth.
“We discovered that many of our young people who went through the traditional adult system never got to be heard, never had their stories heard, and were often just dismissed and then they would reoffend,” Spaull said.
All the teen defendants have access to services provided by the Center for Youth to address issues such as drug and mental health problems.
Many of the cases reveal heartbreaking stories: Teens raising siblings on their own because their parents have abandoned them or have become unable to care for them because of drug addiction or mental health issues.
Many of the teen defendants are living on their own or in dysfunctional households with siblings or friends.
“It’s hard not to be depressed, but we know that their involvement in Teen Court will be really really important,” said Spaull.
Teen Court engages with the teen defendants in a way that regular court does not. Once a defendant serves a sentence in City Court, they are on their own again.
With Teen Court, the teen defendant is “engaged in a program, in a system, that requires them to accept ownership and also stay connected to us,” Spaull said.
“Everyone has a counseling session. Everyone has access to some of our shelters. Everyone has access to an employment opportunity,” she said.
But if they do fail to meet their Teen Court obligations, the teen defendants are sent back to City Court where they could be sent to jail.
“We know that the recidivism rate continues to be remarkably low for Teen Court youth, as opposed to young people who just kind of go through the system and are essentially in a revolving door,” Spaull said.
[email protected] / (585) 232-2035
A reception and silent auction to benefit the Teen Court program starts at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday (May 11) at the Jackrabbit Club, 40 Anderson Ave. Tickets are $42.70.i