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Independence Youth Court

Ages 7-16

Rating: Level 3


The Independence Youth Court (IYC) was established in 1985 as a partnership between the local bar association, the Juvenile Division of the Jackson County (Mo.) Family Court, the city of Independence (Mo.), and the Independence Police Department. The youth court receives hundreds of referrals a year, with most of them coming from the Independence Police Department. Shoplifting, truancy, and vandalism make up the vast majority of cases, but the court may also hear cases involving status offenses, third-degree assaults, and minor drug and alcohol violations.

The IYC uses the youth judge model, in which there are no jurors, the case is argued by youths volunteering as defense attorneys and prosecutors, and youth volunteer judges are responsible for all proceedings and making the sentencing decision. While not part of the formal process, the executive director is present during court hearings as a spectator and reviews the sentence to make sure that the youth and his or her parents understand the disposition.

Youths may volunteer for IYC beginning at age 13. Defendants may be as young as 7 but no older than 16. All volunteers involved in the IYC must pass a youth bar exam to serve as attorneys or judges. Finally—unlike most youth courts—defendants may plead not guilty during their initial appearance, prompting an adjudication hearing. When a youth makes a “not guilty” plea, the youth judge is responsible for determining whether a finding of guilt is warranted. However, because the IYC is a diversion program, the youth still must comply with the initial diversion agreement regardless of the finding. If not, the defendant may be referred back to the Jackson County Family Court.


IYC was part of the Evaluation of Teen Courts (ETC) project. The ETC project used a quasi-experimental design to evaluate the impact of four diverse teen courts in four different States. The ETC project identified teen courts suitable for evaluation based on several criteria, including 1) willingness to participate in an evaluation, 2) caseload size, 3) length of operation, 4) courtroom model, and 5) geographical location. The evaluation tracked youth outcomes in four treatment groups (i.e., teen courts) and four nonequivalent (nonrandomized) comparison groups. The composition of the comparison groups varied from site to site. The IYC comparison group was constructed from electronic records of first-time offenders referred to the Jackson County Family Court in 2000 but who would have qualified for the IYC. The program and comparison youths were matched on demographic characteristics and offense. The principal data sources included 1) self-administered questionnaires completed by youths and their parents, 2) teen court program files and administrative records, and 3) police and court records.


The findings of the ETC project suggest that teen courts are a promising alternative for the juvenile justice system. In IYC the results indicate that youths referred to teen court were significantly less likely to be re-referred to the juvenile justice system for a new offense within 6 months of their initial offense. Specifically, 9 percent of IYC youths recidivated, compared with 28 percent of comparison youths.

Risk Factors


  • Anti-social behavior and alienation/Delinquent beliefs/General delinquency involvement/Drug dealing
  • Early onset of aggression and/or violence
  • Favorable attitudes toward drug use/Early onset of AOD use/Alcohol and/or drug use
  • Gun possession/Illegal gun ownership and/or carrying
  • Lack of guilt and empathy
  • Victimization and exposure to violence


  • Dropping out of school
  • Truancy/Frequent absences


  • Community crime/High crime neighborhood
  • Low community attachment
  • Neighborhood youth in trouble
  • Social and physical disorder/Disorganized neighborhood


  • Gang involvement/Gang membership

Protective Factors


  • Healthy / Conventional beliefs and clear standards
  • High expectations
  • Perception of social support from adults and peers
  • Social competencies and problem-solving skills


  • Clear social norms / Policies with sanctions for violations and rewards for compliance
  • Prosocial opportunities for participation / Availability of neighborhood resources
  • Rewards for prosocial community involvement
  • Safe environment / Low neighborhood crime


Butts, Jeffrey A., and Janeen Buck. 2000. Teen Courts: A Focus on Research. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Butts, Jeffrey A., Janeen Buck, and Mark Coggeshall. 2002. The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.


Judge Susan Watkins, Executive Director
Independence Youth Court
111 East Maple Avenue
Independence, MO 64050
Phone: (816) 325-7750
Fax: (816) 325-7749
Web site: