The Hempstead Village courtroom was crowded with teenagers -- in the jury box, at the prosecution and defense tables, and in the audience -- as they heard the case of a 15-year-old boy charged with unauthorized use of a car.
It was a real case with real repercussions. The teenager on Thursday represented the 350th case to appear before the Nassau County Youth Court, and it happened on the court's third anniversary.
Administered by the district attorney's office, the court provides a forum that allows youth who commit nonviolent crimes to be judged by their peers and given a second chance at a clean record.
"Young people need a place where they are allowed the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and grow into productive and law-abiding members of society," Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said after court at a celebration of the program.
To be eligible, offenders -- called respondents -- must be between 11 and 17 years old, acknowledge their wrongdoing and take responsibility for their actions. The usual sentence is 20 to 25 hours of community service, along with jury duty on as many as six other cases. Apologies to offended parties, curfew and mediation are also required.
The prosecution and defense are high school volunteers, supervised by Hofstra University law students.
The 15-year-old respondent -- whose name is not being used because of his age -- received 20 hours of community service and five jury sessions, and had to apologize to the owner of a car he took on a joy ride.
About 96 percent of sentences in the youth court are completed successfully, officials said. And when they are, all charges are dismissed by a judge or the respondent pleads to a lesser violation. Failure to complete the sentence sends the case back for traditional prosecution in either District or Family Court.
Two 17-year-olds who had been in the program attended the anniversary celebration. Both had been arrested on burglary charges and successfully passed through the court a year ago.
"What I did was dumb," said one of the teens, who has since been accepted into Hofstra University. "We broke into a house of a family away on vacation to use it as a hangout. Dumb, but this program changed my life for the better."
The second teen said, "I'm glad this court was there for me. It helped push me in a better direction."
Rice linked the court to her push for New York to join every other state, except North Carolina, in treating offenders younger than 18 as children. She said she wants state lawmakers to raise the age at which defendants in nonviolent cases can be prosecuted as adults in criminal court.
Hempstead Mayor Wayne Hall, whose village has partnered with Rice in the youth court and other community projects, called the court program an excellent one that provides legal training for local students and renders "fair and equitable decisions for the children who appear here."