Since volunteers and interns are now integral to many agencies in Alaska, recruiting and maintaining qualified volunteers is necessary for programs to be effective. This is the case for youth courts. Youth courts are specialized pre-adjudication programs that divert first-time nonviolent juvenile offenders away from the formal juvenile justice system. With the exception of program directors and limited staff, youth courts are operated by volunteers who act as prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and bailiffs. Consequently, the effectiveness of a youth court is dependent upon its ability to recruit and maintain volunteers. To assess how to improve volunteer recruitment and sustainability in youth courts, we conducted three simultaneous focus groups with a total of 22 youth court volunteers. During these focus groups, we asked volunteers about ways to improve recruitment and sustainability. Many of the results from this evaluation are relevant for any agency that seeks to recruit and maintain skilled volunteers and interns. In this short article, we summarize some of our findings.
We began our focus groups by asking participants why they had originally decided to volunteer for youth court. Youths generally indicated a strong interest in juvenile justice which had developed from peer, family, and media influences. More specifically, participants joined youth court because their peers either came into contact with the formal juvenile justice system or were already volunteering with youth courts. Some youths decided to join because their parents were employed by the criminal justice system. Others were convinced by their parents that it would be a good idea, particularly to prepare for college applications. Finally, there is no doubt that recent television shows have stimulated youths’ interest in the justice system. Unfortunately, many of these youths became disillusioned once they realized that youth courts were not like television shows. A persistent issue that arose in all focus groups is that youths’ perceptions of youth court were generally inaccurate. As a result, many youths became disenchanted with their volunteer experience and decided to quit. In order to successfully recruit and maintain volunteers, youth courts should provide each potential volunteer with a better understanding of youth courts.
We suspect that the same is true for most justice agencies. Individuals who decide to volunteer for an agency will do so because of an interest in justice that has developed from peer, family, and media influences. In addition, students are routinely encouraged by their teachers and professors to seek volunteer opportunities. However, little is told to them about the details of such opportunities and in some cases, these volunteer opportunities may be grossly misunderstood. Misconceptions will be the leading cause of volunteer attrition. To solve this problem, agencies should provide a clear understanding of the volunteers’ roles and responsibilities before accepting volunteers. Training and orientation sessions can be an effective way to clear up such misconceptions.
This did not occur with youth courts. Focus group participants unanimously agreed that their training course should be revised. First, youths complained that the course was not directly relevant to the types of cases that they would hear. For example, youths complained that discussions of criminal intent were focused on murder, a charge that clearly would never appear in youth courts. Second, and partly as a result of irrelevant examples, many youths complained that they had no idea what youth courts were about until they participated on real cases. Finally, some youths had not participated in mock cases as part of their training session and others complained that mock cases occurred too late in the training. Overall, it is clear that their training course should be revised. In doing so, revisions should (1) eliminate irrelevant examples and (2) ensure that all youths participate in mock cases throughout the training course. By achieving these two goals, misconceptions about youth courts should be greatly reduced and volunteer sustainability should improve.
We suspect that most justice agencies could benefit from revisions in their orientation and training courses. Too often these courses will dramatize routine business in order to excite and entice potential volunteers. After all, a course on murder is far more interesting and exciting than a course on shoplifting. Unfortunately, these dramatic examples only amplify potential volunteers’ misconceptions, and inevitably these volunteers will become dissatisfied once they realize that their actual experiences will be far less dramatic and exciting. In order to improve sustainability, all agencies should exclude dramatic examples from their orientation and training courses and should instead provide a more realistic description of what the volunteers will do. Although doing so should increase volunteer sustainability, it may decrease volunteer recruitment.
To improve volunteer recruitment, our focus group participants believed that additional publicity was required. Although youths believed that youth courts are well known in their communities, they also believed that few youths actually know how to get involved. To inform youths about how to get involved, focus group participants suggested that publicity about youth courts should more specifically describe how youths can get involved. Focus group participants understood their role in promoting youth courts and in explaining to their peers how to get involved. In addition, youths believed that additional publicity in the media and schools would be worthwhile.
We again suspect that the same is true for most justice agencies. Volunteer recruitment should be amplified by additional publicity in media and schools. Though most potential volunteers know about justice agencies, they will often have grave misconceptions about these agencies and will generally not know what volunteer opportunities are available or how to apply for them.
Once successful volunteers have been recruited, the best way to keep them will be to offer tangible incentives. Focus group participants thought it was important to increase incentives to enhance volunteer sustainability. More specifically, they thought it was important to clearly base tangible incentives on the number of hours each youth had volunteered. A reward system should be developed in youth courts so that the number and quality of rewards increase as youths’ involvement in youth courts increases. Tangible rewards identified by youths as valuable included sweatshirts, jackets, presidential awards, gavels, and plaques. These rewards should be more clearly linked to the number of hours each youth has volunteered than they currently are. Finally, youths believed that volunteer sustainability could be improved by adding fun non-court activities such as parties and picnics.
Overall, the results from our evaluation suggest that volunteer recruitment and sustainability can be improved if agencies (1) publicize volunteer opportunities, (2) clearly state how to apply for these volunteer positions, (3) provide an accurate description of the volunteer position, and (4) reward volunteers with tangible incentives. Although these results were specific to youth courts in Alaska, there is no reason to believe that these results would not generalize to other agencies.
This project was funded through a University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Community Engagement & Learning grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service Learn-and-Serve. The full report is available on the National Youth Court Center website at www.youthcourt.net. [Web note: the full report is also now available at the Justice Center Web Site.]
André Rosay is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.