Jeff Naft, 17, was wearing a black judge’s robe for the youth court commencement ceremony Wednesday night at the Yorktown Justice Court — but he never intended to sit on the bench.
His favorite television show is the late-’90s hit legal drama “The Practice” and its cast of high-powered Boston defense attorneys had encouraged him to pursue that career.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to be the defense attorney,’ ” Naft, a junior at Yorktown High School, recalls telling youth court coordinator Art Lander. “I just love giving powerful speeches.”
The Feb. 1 ceremony, which graduated 25 middle-school and high-school participants from the six-week program, included a mock arraignment and several speeches from local law enforcement and political leaders.
The courtroom simulation centered around the fictional case of Tim Taylor, a minor who had broken into Yorktown High School and damaged a teacher’s desk to steal $150.
After adolescent attorneys argued for a harsh sentence and begged for leniency, Naft issued his verdict: 35 hours of community service.
“Sometimes you need to be able to learn right from wrong,” Naft told Andrew Greene, the boy portraying Taylor. “Today, you did something wrong but hopefully tomorrow after these hours of community service, you will learn right from wrong.”
The youth court program has been operating since 2007 and affords Yorktown area teens interested in a career in law the chance to learn the ins and outs of court proceedings. Though they don’t get to decide innocence or guilt, the participants in youth court can dole out sentences ranging from 10 to 50 hours of community service for minor crimes like criminal mischief, petty larceny, graffiti and sometimes, simple assault.
Naft said the chance to try different legal roles on for size is the most valuable part of the program.
“Right now, I’m in love with being a judge, but the great thing about youth court is you get to try all of the positions and see which ones you like the best,” he said.
In addition to politicians like State Assemblyman Steve Katz, Yorktown Supervisor Michael Grace and Yorktown Town Board Member Vishnu Patel, the courtroom was packed with a throng of proud parents and grandparents.
Gigi Cenname of Yorktown said she chose to enroll her son and daughter in the youth court program as both a social and educational experience.
“First of all, they made friends here,” Cenname said. “My son himself, he wants to be a police officer, so I think it’s great — and my daughter, too. I just like the fact that they’re involved.”
Yorktown High School student Joseph Bisaccia, 14, said the program helped confirm to him his plan to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“I think it’s cool that you get to do things with law enforcement,” he said, flanked by his beaming mother and grandmother. “I know I was always interested in it so I can see what exactly I want to do with it in the future.”
Bisaccia’s mother Evelyn said the skills gleaned from youth court go beyond the courtroom.
“I thought it would be a great thing for self-confidence and for public speaking,” she said.
Addressing the packed courtroom just before certificates were handed out to the 25 graduates, Katz told the crowd that the youth court program was the first step on the road to becoming committed and civically minded citizens.
“This is leadership. This is learning public speaking, which is really important,” he said. “You guys will become the pillars of our community.”
Grace told the group that participating in programs like youth court is part of “having a stake in your community.”
“We all have our roles in our democracy and our civil rights mean nothing without the vigorous defense and argument made for them,” said Grace, a lawyer by trade. “I’m so glad to see you all get involved with it — I’m looking at my future competition.”