Christian Brothers Academy eighth grader Zachary Grzelka has had many brushes with the law - but only the positive kind.
He's studied it, seen it in action in the courtroom and had the opportunity to weigh in on decisions that truly impact the lives of peers in his community. Grzelka is a member of the Onondaga County Youth Court, a unique system of justice where students work to keep first-time offenders from repeating their mistakes.
Grzelka first heard of this volunteer program through his participation in CBA's Junior High Student Senate. He thought it would be a good fit and a chance to develop his leadership skills, so he decided to apply. He was accepted last fall and has since been hard at work learning the ins-and-outs of the law.
"We act as bailiffs, attorneys and judges," said Grzelka, who is the son of Gina and Robert Grzelka of Baldwinsville. "We study the cases, question the offenders, deliberate and actually impose sentences."
The Youth Court serves only first-time offenders, who range from age 7 to 15 and have been involved in non-violent misdemeanors usually related to property, not individuals. Members of the court are 13 to 19-year-old students who attend Onondaga County public and private high school. Each volunteers his or her time with the court and must complete an extensive training program, an apprenticeship to "shadow" an experienced court member in various roles and a "bar" exam to show sufficient knowledge of the law. Members of the legal community supervise the program.
While Grzelka serves in the Baldwinsville branch, Youth Court is held many times each month in actual courtrooms across the county and provides over 20,000 hours of community service annually. Cases are referred to the Youth Court through the probation department and other law enforcement agencies. To have a case heard in Youth Court, offenders must have already agreed to plead guilty and abide by the decision of the court, which typically includes community service of up to 100 hours and classes on topics such as anger management, theft deterrence, drug/alcohol education and peer pressure. Individuals who do not complete the program are automatically sent back to Family Court. However, according to Onondaga County statistics, the program has a very low rate of recidivism.
"I've learned a lot about how the system works and will be able to take on greater roles in the process as I gain experience," Grzelka said. "It's great, and I plan to keep doing it. It's an awesome program and a way to give back to my community."