Teens judge teens at Nassau's Youth Court

(L-R) Volunteers Vidya Laljie, 15, of East Meadow,

(L-R) Volunteers Vidya Laljie, 15, of East Meadow, Briyenna Souter, 17, of East Meadow, and Tyler Rosenbaum, 17, of Merrick, listen to Indigo Jones, 16, of Uniondale, practice her opening dialogue, while waiting for trial preceedings to begin during Nassau County Youth Court's 200th hearing at Hempstead Village Court. (Oct. 18, 2012) (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

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When Ibrahem Pasha got caught stealing from a sporting goods store two years ago, he thought his future would be ruined.

But instead of going through a traditional courtroom, Pasha's case was referred to the Nassau County Youth Court -- a forum that allows teens accused of minor crimes to be judged and punished by their peers.

Pasha, now 17, was sentenced by a jury of his teenage peers to do community service and also serve as a Youth Court juror himself. Although his mandatory service has long been complete, he now volunteers for the court as an "attorney" prosecuting and defending other teens.

"It's a good experience, being judged by your peers," said Pasha, of Melville, who is a junior at Uniondale High School. "Teenagers know what it's like to be a teenager."

Last week, Nassau's Youth Court celebrated its 200th case in a ceremony at Hempstead Village Court, where the court meets weekly. Part of a statewide program, the court has been open since March 2011.

"We must get to these kids before the influences of the street become too much to overcome and provide them with the resources they need to succeed," said Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice. "By positively influencing their development at a crucial stage in their lives, we can help shape the next generation of civic-minded, responsible citizens."

To be referred to the youth court from other county courts, defendants must be 17 or younger, acknowledge what they did wrong, and take responsibility for it, said Kara Kaplan, one of the assistant district attorneys who oversees the program. Student volunteers from across the county play the roles of prosecutor, defense attorney, bailiff, clerk, and jurors during the hearings. A prosecutor stands in as the judge.

After weighing the case, the jury decides on appropriate punishment -- such as community service, oral and written apologies, essays, youth court jury duty, restitution, curfew or mediation -- Kaplan said. The defendants also are linked to positive role models such as college professors, football coaches and lawyers, as well as services for drug treatment anger management, and counseling, she said.

"This program gives young people a chance to take responsibility for their actions," said District Court Judge Sharon Gianelli, who runs the county's adolescent diversion court and refers many teens who come before her to youth court. "It gives them the skills to forge a path toward a brighter future."

Lauren Melandro, 16, a junior at East Meadow High School, came to the program as a volunteer, not a defendant. Still, she said hearing from teenagers whose lives were changed by one bad choice has taught her to act responsibly.

"Every case has an impact on me," she said. "You see that making just one bad decision can get you arrested."

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