Shelby County “youth court” program teaches students about second chances

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The "youth court" program in Shelby County helps both juvenile offenders as well as the student volunteers who make the program happen.

Branden Whitley is one of the Shelby County student volunteers who helps out on youth court cases, including an assault charge against a young man.

But less than a year ago, Branden was the actual defendant.

“I got in a fight last year. The boy I got in the fight with pressed charges," he said.

The high school student is one of more than 100 children who’s already been through the “youth court program” this year.

Administrator Avis Allen said it started it in 2010.

“Juveniles that have committed misdemeanors end up in youth court," Allen said. “They go before a jury of their peers. The youth court now consists of 17 Shelby county Schools; we have 300 youth volunteers and 70 attorneys that mentor our youth.”

Back in January, the student jury deliberated. Branden got community service.

After that, he wasn’t done with volunteering. He now helps out with youth court, on the other side of the gavel.

“It gives you a chance to help someone out and give them a second chance other than going out and doing something they’ll regret," Brandon said.

Ivy Blackmon also volunteered at Youth Court when she was in high school.

“I got involved when I was 15. I was in 10th grade at time. The youth court coordinator Ms. Allen came to my high school," Blackmon said. "I just saw the opportunity to network, form relationships and learn something I had no idea about.”

The 23 year old also remembers a lot of challenges, including how her and her sister could get there.

Middle College High School is more than four miles from the juvenile court.

“That’s when I knew the commitment. They walked from Middle College to the court to be here for the hearing,” Allen said.

Then there were her fears of public speaking and writing.

“Low and behold, after the meeting we got our packets of our first case and I was the prosecutor. We had to write and things like that. I was freaking out! I didn’t think I’d be able to do it,” Blackmon said.

But eventually, she got better. With that, her feelings toward the people helping her in the program changed too.

“Coming from my background and having a certain perspective about the judicial system and police or anything like that and being able to form relationships with them, I think that bridged a gap almost”

Seven years later, Blackmon is a Middle Tennessee State University graduate and saving up to start her own business. She knows her experience in youth court led her here.

“Ivy changed because she was afraid of leadership,” Allen said.

“I would say that was one of the biggest skills I learned was networking and how to build relationships,” Blackmon said.

As for the other kids still volunteering in the program, it's also making a difference.

“You can come out here and help people, help give them a second chance," Branden said.

“I’ve become a better speaker and become more able to communicate effectively with other people," said White Station High School senior Brandon Lomax. “People while being different are the same in nature; that they all want to put their best foot forward and help people not make the same mistakes.”

They hope to follow in Blackmon’s example.

According to Allen, youth court defines its success by preventing repeat offenders. So far in 2018, they’ve had a 92 percent success rate. Last year, only seven percent of the 174 kids that went through youth court became repeat offenders, she said.