"The Power of Positive Peer Pressure": a Q&A with Scott Bernard Peterson

November 18, 2009


Scott, you have been a passionate champion of improving the odds for youth for a long time. What got you started in the first place?

I began my career in my home state of New York in 1991.  I graduated in June with a degree in Public Policy and Administration and began helping to open a new homeless youth shelter in July of that same year. After that, I got to work on leading a community coalition to establish a new, innovative juvenile justice program called "youth court" in 1993.  For me, this kind of work just seemed natural.

Fast forward two decades, and I'm still advocating, albeit on a national and international level for the very same programs that got me started in the first place.



What is youth court?

Youth justice programs—commonly called youth court, teen court, peer court, or youth peer panels—use young people (and adults) as volunteers in a wide range of roles from attorney to judge and jury to question, defend, try and sentence young offenders.

I believe that if negative peer pressure is a primary factor in leading some young people to commit a crime or an offense, then positive peer pressure can be harnessed in a safe setting and redirected to encourage young people to adhere to the rule of law and become more productive citizens.

The youth justice approach is really a textbook example of a grassroots national movement. There are now more than 1,000 local youth courts and teen courts in the United States—it's emerging as the most replicated juvenile justice program in America. It's affordable and easy to replicate, since it relies on volunteers and is generally locally funded (although some states support programs).

As part of a graduated approach to juvenile crime, it works.  The more youth courts there are, the more young people are diverted from the formal justice system—and we know [from research] that this in turn means more youth diverted from becoming adult criminals.

In 2008, George Washington University released a comprehensive national report on youth courts that found:

  • 117,310 youth volunteered during a one year period for these programs
  • 16,522 adults volunteered during a one year period for these programs
  • 133,832 youth and adults volunteered in these programs.



In your career, what are some of the most dramatic turnarounds you've seen kids make?

In the Colonie Youth Court—that first youth court I was involved with—some of the young people were so quiet and timid when they first volunteered. They had a hard time getting up in front of their peers in the attorney role and cross examining the young offender or the victim.  Fast-forward six or seven months later and so many of these young people had begun to find their voice and improve their self-perception.

I saw a lot of similarities between the teen volunteers and the teens arrested and referred there (often for minor assault or underage drinking).  The youth being tried were there largely there by choice, given the volunteer nature of a youth court.  For the most part, I think they enjoyed completing their peer-imposed community service sentences.  By the end of their 40 or 50 hours of community service, many of these young people came back as volunteers in youth court.  This made it all even more worthwhile.  



Putting your wise man hat on, can you identify five characteristics of successful programs that help hard-to-serve youth turn their lives around?

Most good social and community programs have quite a few specific programmatic elements.

A good youth service program should offer tangible service opportunities—not one-time episodes but ongoing knowledge- and skill-building work.  The service projects should be intentional in their planning and have a calculated outcome that allows the young person the experience of making a difference.

A good juvenile intervention program viewed as a first or second step in a system of graduated sanctions should be just that. It should allow the young person to atone for their anti-social, delinquent, and/or criminal behavior, but not treat the youth like a hardened criminal.

I think court-involved youth are often sent the message—or maybe it is inherently natural for them to feel—that they are (and always will be) a criminal.  We should find ways, both creative and straightforward, to tell these youthful offenders, "It's not you we do not like, it is your behavior."

I know for me, during my six years of direct service work at the homeless youth shelter and youth court, I would reprimand the youth for missing curfew and take away privileges—and then in the next breath tell him to go get his GED book, so I could help him study for one of the five areas he needed help with to pass the test.

Juvenile intervention programs should intervene early—meaning a young person arrested or apprehended today should not be referred several months later.  Ideally, the referral should take place within just days of the arrest.



What is Global Youth Justice and why is it important?

First, there's the concept. We have to reduce crime and incarceration rates here in America and around the world. The global youth justice movement supports the expansion of quality interventions like youth courts—based on the premise that young people themselves must be at the forefront of this effort.

Global Youth Justice, LLC, is the first-ever global or international effort to support these peer justice and youth empowerment programs. I incorporated it in 2009 to advocate for peer youth justice approaches, and to build collaborations, knowledge exchanges and to train and assist local efforts around the globe.

It's important to note that although I've championed the youth justice peer-volunteer approach for almost two decades now, I didn't start this global movement. Too often a good thing gets ruined by one or more individuals trying to lay claim to it or copyright it as their vision. I want my contribution to be one of sharing and hopefully doing my best to lead, follow, and/or get out of the way depending on what the task or topic at hand is.



What are the goals and how will you know if Global Youth Justice is effective?


The goal of Global Youth Justice, LLC is to reduce crime and incarceration rates here in America and around the globe. Our measurable objectives are:

  • By 2020, there will be more than 2,000 local youth courts, teen courts, peer courts, student courts, and youth peer panels operational on the planet in more than a dozen countries to include programs on every continent.
  • By 2020, there will be more than 225,000 youthful offenders/juveniles referred annually for disposition and sentencing to these juvenile justice programs for their offenses, crimes and/or violations.
  • By 2020, there will be more than 210,000 youth volunteering annually in these local youth courts, teen courts, peer courts, student courts, and youth peer panels.
  • By 2020, there will be more than 30,000 adults volunteering annually in these local youth courts, teen courts, peer courts, student courts, and youth peer panels.
  • There will be more than 5,000 full-time and part-time professional staff working in these 2,000 local programs around the globe.

The free exchange of ideas is already proving to be popular: We've had more than 20,000 adult and youth visitors from 38 countries in the seven weeks since we launched the Website.





What are some of the biggest developments in juvenile justice in recent years?


It has been a rough decade for juvenile justice if you were looking to the federal government for leadership, support, and/or federal funds.  The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in the United States Department of Justice dismantled both its vital research division and its critically necessary national training and technical assistance division.  Important coalitions on a national and state level saw their support from OJJDP either diminish or evaporate.



What are the main policies at federal level to watch in the coming months?

As someone concerned with juvenile justice and youth development, it's always interesting to look at the annual appropriation for OJJDP. This year, there doesn't appear to be any significant new funding streams on the horizon.  In the coming months, we can likely watch as yet again most of the available tens of millions of dollars that could have gone through OJJDP will be eaten up by earmarks. Last year, unless you were a mentoring service provider, there were few opportunities to compete for funding.

We need to unite and advocate for juvenile justice legislation and appropriations, including the much-needed $250 million dollar Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant that never came to full fruition and pales in comparison to what it once was and what it could have become.



What about in the states?

States are experiencing further reductions in revenue from taxes and ongoing deficits, so we can expect to see state continuing to shift funds (including federal funds) to maintain the most essential of services.

On both the federal and state level we will mostly see policy and legislation passed with little or no appropriations to support the implementation of the mandates of these policies.



If you could pass a law - one policy change - to improve juvenile justice in this country, what would it be?

If I had my juvenile justice wish, I would use it to give every municipality in America a local system of graduated sanctions for juvenile offenders, as defined in the "Comprehensive Strategy" written by John J. Wilson and Buddy Howell - two pillars responsible for the tremendous gains realized in the short history of the federal juvenile justice legislation and appropriations that largely just came about in the mid 1970s.

This "Comprehensive Strategy" was thriving for a number of years in the late 1990s and making considerable gains on a number of fronts.  The innovation, positive social change, and new programming was further validation the "Comprehensive Strategy" was embraced on a local level and it gave local communities a solid and practical blue print  with specific direction.  These youth and teen courts and balanced and restorative programs and juvenile justice models are so widely replicated in the USA as a result of the "Comprehensive Strategy" empowering local communities to establish common sense and practical juvenile justice programs for their children and youth who commit a crime, offense and/or violation.

Scott Bernard Peterson is president and founder of Global Youth Justice, LLC, and former national director for criminal and juvenile justice at YouthBuild USA. He has worked in the United States Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and as a senior advisor to both the United Nations and UNICEF on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. Read his full bio.



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