Inspiring the Valley: Fresno County ‘youth court’ offers compassion and early intervention

Inspiring the Valley

Many Fresno County judges who preside over juvenile court will tell you it changes their perspective on youth offenders.

In response, a judge has helped set up a program to intervene before juveniles commit serious crimes.

Judge Gary Hoff has sat on the bench in Fresno County Superior Court for more than 25 years. One of his first assignments presiding over juvenile court.

“When I saw kids in juvenile court, it wasn’t their first offense, it wasn’t their first time felony,” Hoff explained. That’s when he started “youth court.”

Judges see it as an opportunity to intervene early, before young offenders turned to serious crime.

He says, “Once we get them in juvenile court, they are so far down the road in criminality, it’s hard to pull them back, even though I would say I would never give up on a kid.”

Youth court is a way to hold young people accountable for minor offenses. Some of those offenses, “Procession or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, fighting, on-campus thefts,” Hoff explains.

The courts are located on high school campuses, a real judge presides over the proceedings. The difference, the jurors are students. “The student jurors are sending that message ‘We don’t like your behavior it’s wrong it could be dangerous to us.'”

But there is also compassion and understanding.

“As student jurors, they are saying that from their heart because I think they recognize there are lessons to be taught, and they know what those lessons are,” Hoff says.

There are youth courts at 15 high schools in Fresno County. The judges all volunteer their time to preside over the hearings.

“It’s an amazing collaboration that involves law enforcement and probation, the schools, a lot of different school districts and the court and everybody is pulling for one thing which is the success of that child,” says Kimberly Nystrom-Geist, Fresno County Superior Court.

You see that coming together at their end of the year recognition ceremony, student jurors, and law enforcement working together to turn young lives around. At the center of it all is Judge Hoff, who has been with youth court since its inception 24 years ago.

“His commitment to youth court and kids went far beyond his time in juvenile court and that’s so admirable, it’s such a great example to the rest of us being committed not just to our work in the courtroom but to the community. Because that’s really what judges are about,” Nystrom-Geist says.

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