Camille Walsh joined the IAS faculty in 2011 with both a J.D. and a Ph.D. in United States history. Walsh started in IAS at the same time as the new Law Economics & Public Policy (LEPP) major, and she co-taught the first intro course for LEPP with Dan Jacoby. On her very first day, Walsh went with Dean Bruce Burgett to meet with Judge Michelle Gehlsen, who was also new to Bothell and wanted to talk with IAS about her idea of setting up a Bothell Youth Court (BYC).
The Washington State Legislature, under RCW 3.72.030, describes youth court as “a disposition method for cases involving juveniles alleged to have committed traffic or transit infractions.” As this suggests, youth courts are diversion programs. Intended for minor offenses and administered at the local level, they positively harness peer judgment and influence to address harmful or illegal behavior. Using this framework, Judge Gehlsen’s goal was to set up an alternative hearing method for Bothell youth that would have an educational and restorative role and not a punitive one.
“Washington state law enables youth to hear a case and give a disposition for that case that could take a lot of different forms – it could be an apology letter, community service, creating a video about texting and driving, creating a poster about peer pressure – that seek to change behavior in ways that receiving a fine doesn’t,” explains Walsh. This type of youth court uses the concept of restorative justice, which seeks to rehabilitate legal offenders by reconciling them with the victims of their actions and/or community at large.
After the initial meeting, Judge Gehlsen visited Walsh’s Introduction to Law class to present the ideas of restorative justice and youth court. Students recruited from this and other classes then took part in a two-credit class focused on developing a presentation for the City of Bothell designed to get buy-in from municipal stakeholders. The presentation was a success, and Bothell Youth Court was given a green light by the city.
Walsh worked with UW Bothell students to recruit and orient students from Bothell High and Secondary Academy for Success, an alternative high school option in Bothell. The youth court is run by high school students who hear the cases of their peers. UW students learn about restorative justice by observing the court sessions, readings, and by designing and facilitating training sessions for the high school students who make up the youth court. While not unique, this active near-peer mentorship of high school students by college students is one of the key features that distinguishes the Bothell Youth Court from other youth courts around the state and country. See our student and alumni features in this issue for IAS student perspectives.
Walsh has run a Bothell Youth Court Taskforce class every quarter (excluding summers) to continue the IAS side of the collaboration. The youth court holds monthly hearings during the academic year in the Bothell Municipal Court. Each session hears two cases. UW students attend all of the hearings and also meet weekly as a class to discuss readings in restorative justice, what they observed in youth court, and design one or two training sessions a quarter for the high school student participants.
Working from the restorative justice approach, Bothell Youth Court’s public hearings are not held between prosecutors and defendants. Instead, Bothell Youth Court hears cases between the community and the respondent, each represented by an advocate. After the both sides have presented their cases, which may include expert witnesses, Bothell Youth Court moves to a restorative circle, in which all parties and the jury sit together in a circle to discuss the details of the case, the harm to the community, and to try and come to an understanding as to why the infraction occurred.
The Restorative Circle
“Most youth courts don’t do the restorative circle,” Walsh notes. “But as Bothell Youth Court evolved, students decided that they needed a mechanism added to the hearing structure that would help put restorative justice into practice. In a restorative circle, everyone can see everyone else, everyone’s voice gets heard, and everyone’s on an even playing field – there’s no one sitting in a position of power in the circle.”
When asked to elaborate on her understanding of restorative justice, Walsh says: “Restorative justice is a process that can respond to some kind of harm, potential harm, or threat of harm. Consequently, it has to involve as many people in the community as possible that have a stake in what has happened or may happen. ‘Harm’ in restorative justice is partly defined as a violation of a relationship, of trust, or of a feeling of safety. The goal of restorative justice isn’t to ‘fix’ that relationship: it seeks to uncover if that violation has created needs that weren’t there before, or if there are needs that caused the violation in the first place. While this may seem very abstract, it’s really about harms that create needs in the community.”
Speaking to the impact of Bothell Youth Court and UW Bothell’s participation in the program, Judge Gehlsen says: “Bothell Youth Court provides a unique opportunity for local youth to positively engage in their community while learning about the legal system and evolving concepts of restorative justice - all while developing the critical leadership and collaborative skills so essential in today's society.
“The involvement of UW Bothell in Bothell Youth Court has been essential to its success and longevity. UW Bothell students serve as mentors and role models, and provide the students with personal exposure to the benefits of a college community. Through the support and dedication of UW Bothell and Professor Walsh, participants in BYC build relationships, attend campus events and training, and gain critical skills such as public speaking and facilitating leadership roles.”
Looking to the future of Bothell Youth Court, Wash says: “We’d like to expand both the breadth of the youth who are included, and the types of cases that are heard. But we would need to maintain the level of attention and thoughtfulness in the approach to each case, and also double or triple the number of cases of different kinds – we’re still looking for the resources that would make that functional and sustainable.”
If you are interested in meeting the UW and Bothell high school students working with Bothell Youth Court and/or helping to make the project sustainable, consider attending the Bothell Youth Court 5-Year Anniversary Celebration and fundraiser on April 29, 2018 at McMenamins Anderson School in Bothell.