Emilio Ayala-Youngblood will testify that participating in Youth Court helped him break out of his personal shell as a young teen.

The Fort Osage High School senior can also say he's seen students walking the halls who benefited from going through Youth Court.

Ayala-Youngblood and Grain Valley senior Madison Montgomery received special recognition for five years of service during Monday's Eastern Jackson County Youth Court graduation at Fort Osage. Judge Susan Watkins, who has been executive director for the EJC Youth Court since its inception in 1989 and the Independence Youth Court a couple years prior, swore in the newest set of youth attorneys.

In youth court, juvenile offenders are judged, prosecuted and defended by their peers as an alternative to Jackson County Family Court, though it's under Family Court jurisdiction. Teens can start serving as attorneys for their peers at age 13, in eighth grade.

This year’s EJC class had 38 graduates from attorney training. Also during the ceremony, Watkins recognized 10 senior judges.

Offenders who plead guilty or are found guilty complete community service hours and an education program. “Not guilty” pleas lead to a trial, with the defendant represented by a fellow youth. Adults monitor the courtroom process at all times.

“Students go through an actual court process,” Watkins said.

For EJC Youth Court, students come from the Blue Springs, Fort Osage, Grain Valley and Oak Grove school districts.

As a senior this year, Ayala-Youngblood was able to serve as a judge, something he said seemed intimidating before but quickly grew on him.

“Whenever I was an attorney, thought I couldn't do that,” he said about being a judge. “After the first time I realized I was confident enough.”

Besides learning about a justice system for youths, and building his own character, Ayala-Youngblood said he also learned that “It's OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them,” adding that he's seen Youth Court turn around some teens who might otherwise have become “problematic adults.”

“I'd like to say that 90 percent that come through it are one-time offenders,” he said after the ceremony. “It's nice to see this played a role.”

Montgomery offered similar observations – both personal and for others.

“Youth Court has helped me discover my voice, and how to treat others with respect,” she said, and for offenders, “it can be a turning point to truly make a turn for the better.”

Montgomery also said that, coming from parents in law enforcement, she learned how to see the various sides of the justice system.

Youth Court is primarily funded through COMBAT, Jackson County's anti-drug and anti-violence tax, as well as several local municipalities. Dockets in Eastern Jackson County are normally about 15 cases but can reach as 55, Watkins said, and they include offenses like third-degree assault, shoplifting, curfew, vandalism and minor drug possession.