'Time Bank Youth Court' Could Divert Teens in Trouble Near Cherokee

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Julia Ho describes a proposal for a Time Bank Youth Court during a meeting of the Cherokee Street Business Association. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Photo by Danny Wicentowski
  • Julia Ho describes a proposal for a Time Bank Youth Court during a meeting of the Cherokee Street Business Association.

By next year, youth busted for municipal ordinance violations in two south city neighborhoods — Gravois Park and Benton Park West — may have the opportunity to face justice in something called a Time Bank Youth Court. 

"Time Bank" is not the title of finance-themed science fiction epic. In general, the term describes a network of people who exchange their time as a form of currency instead of cash. Maintaining such a network involves tracking the exchange of "time credits" — say, swapping an hour of music lessons for an hour of gardening. St. Louis already has a time bank, called the Cowry Collective, and it boasts about 200 active members.

And last week, members of the Cherokee Street Business Association voted to support a version of time-banking that has never before been attempted in St. Louis — no less than “a different way to think about crime and the way we address it,” in the words of Julia Ho, who presented the idea to the group.

With the support of the St. Louis Family Court Juvenile Division, which operates a branch on Cherokee Street, the Time Bank Youth Court will try to intervene in the lives of young offenders before they find themselves in front of a real judge for committing serious crimes. 

For this program, teens who choose to opt in will face a volunteer jury comprised of teens and young adults. And the jury will choose alternative sentences in lieu of fines or citations. The goal? To connect youth aged 8 to 25 with an informal network of community services, residents and business owners. 

"This would be processes to both divert tangible cases that are going through the courts, but also preventing crime from happening in the first place," Ho tells Riverfront Times. "It's about providing an alternative for business owners and the stakeholders in the Cherokee neighborhood to refer youth to the program beforehand, so that they don’t feel the need to call police." 

Ho, the founder of Solidarity Economy St. Louis, concedes that many operational details need refining before the Time Bank Youth Court's proposed March 2017 start-date. But her expectations are ambitious: In its first year, she thinks the program can divert at least 100 municipal ordinance violations cases in the Cherokee Street neighborhoods. A separate pilot site, at the Northwest Academy of Law high school in north city, is also in the works. 

According to a proposal Ho submitted to the business association, the process would first require a participant to "acknowledge responsibility for the offense in question and voluntarily opt into the program." Failing to complete the sentence within a 60 days would risk being referred back to the formal justice system.

Since having too much free time can be a contributing factor in juvenile delinquency, the alternative sentences attempt to convert that time into resources in St. Louis' existing time bank community. Ho suggests that the sentences could involve programs to build educational skills like entrepreneurship, or cultural activities like music classes, community arts projects and media production. Participants would pay their debt with time credits and would leave the program with new ties to a supportive community.

"This is a new type of exchange for our time bank," says Chinyere Oteh, who founded the Cowry Collective in 2010. "As far as I know, this is the first program of its kind to engage the youth in a restorative justice way in St. Louis." 
 
The project has attracted tentative support from Ward 20 Alderwoman Cara Spencer, whose ward includes Gravois Park. In a Facebook message to RFT, she said, "The Cherokee neighborhoods support alternative and supportive ways of dealing with juvenile crime, and this looks like an interesting opportunity to foster meaningful relationships and constructive solutions." 

Kathryn Herman, the city's Assistant Court Administrator for the Family Court's juvenile division, also conveyed her willingness to help the Time Bank Youth Court become a reality. If successfully implemented, the program could join the city's existing network of informal diversion services.

"It's certainly a good restorative justice model," says Herman. "We want the children to learn from the experience. We want them to understand and have some empathy on how they impact the community by their actions, and we want them to gain some competency toward taking another choice. Of course, our goal is to keep children from returning to the juvenile justice system; we want them to be on a better path." 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com


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