.Rethinking Juvenile Justice

Two local programs offer alternatives to the failing system. One of them transforms teenage offenders into attorneys. The other wants to change our notion of justice.

On a Wednesday evening inside a courtroom in Oakland’s Wiley Manuel Courthouse, the defendant squirms as if he isn’t sure what to say. But then again, he’s trying to explain why he bit the victim.

“I stepped in to clarify,” he says. “But she grabs my right sleeve, and hits me over my right ear. We are tugging back and forth, and she is swinging at me. She hits the back of my head six or seven times, so I bit her hand and that ended the dispute.”

Prosecuting Attorney Naimah Jennings asks the defendant, “Did you have a history of tensions with the victim?”

“No,” the defendant says, adding that they were mere acquaintances.

“If you didn’t have issues with each other,” Jennings continues, “why all the sudden would she become violent?”

When the defendant doesn’t answer, Jennings continues.

“When you stepped in,” she asks, “did you say anything derogatory to her?”


“Why, out of the blue, did you bite her?” Jennings asks, her volume increasing.

Visibly flustered, the defendant reiterates that his action was in self-defense. “I bit her until she let go,” he says. “I didn’t want to cause damage.”

“No further questions, your honor,” the prosecutor says. She then walks swiftly and triumphantly back to her seat and sets her pages of notes down in a neat pile. And after a brief break, the jury reaches its verdict. The defendant must perform twenty hours of community service and attend a mandatory “Healthy Boundaries” workshop designed to encourage positive behavior among youth who have committed offenses against other youth. He also must agree to serve as a juror himself.

It looks like a standard courtroom session. A judge sits on the bench. The defendant sits alongside a well-dressed attorney at a table with a pitcher of water. The bailiff maintains order while a clerk below the judge takes notes. However, most everyone involved — the attorneys, jurors, defendant, and victim — are minors.

This is McCullum Youth Court, a diversionary program for first-time offenders that offers an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system. For fifteen years, the program has sought to stop offenders from pursuing a path of crime that could have been avoided with proper intervention.

When a youth under the age of eighteen has committed a minor, first-time offense, such as battery, bringing a toy gun to school, or getting caught with marijuana, police departments in Alameda County can help the offender avoid a criminal record by sending him directly to McCullum Youth Court. Instead of undergoing a traditional trial, the offender goes before a jury of past youth offenders. The bailiffs, clerks, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are all youths, too.

The idea is to hold offenders accountable by having them face the judgment of their peers. And participants eventually also serve as jury members. The program’s philosophy holds that when wayward adolescents take on the responsibility of judging others who have made mistakes similar to their own, they gain a sense of self-worth while reevaluating the consequences of their own actions.

McCullum Youth Court is one of two innovative East Bay alternatives to a juvenile justice system that has been proven to fail first-time offenders. The other program, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, seeks to change society’s notions of juvenile justice by looking closely at the needs of victims.

Both programs reject conventional concepts of punishment. And there are good reasons to reject the current system; sending arrested youth through the courts to county and state incarceration facilities is expensive, time-consuming, and likely to lead to future incarceration. Some 65 percent of youth who go through juvenile hall in Alameda County end up returning there, said Deborah Swanson, the county’s deputy director of probation. And according to a 2004 California Performance Review report, California had the highest rate of reoffending juveniles of any state in the country. In fact, 91 percent of the “graduates” from California’s youth incarceration system are rearrested within three years.

The costs of this failure are impossible to ignore. Gail Bereola, the presiding judge of the Alameda juvenile court, said it costs $383 per day to keep a juvenile offender in juvenile hall and $165 per day of detention in Alameda County’s correctional facility, Camp Wilmont Sweeney. With the standard stay at Camp Sweeney lasting nine months, the county’s typical financial burden for a single youth sentenced there is roughly $44,550. Meanwhile, she added, the state Division of Juvenile Justice charges Alameda County slightly under $21,000 per month per youth in its care.

The most frustrating part for Bereola, who convened a 2007 countywide task force into alternative approaches in juvenile justice, is knowing that much of this money is wasted. Youths enter court discouraged and unmotivated. “They are trying to understand who they are, and they are often dealing with broken homes,” she said. At that point, they no longer see any connection between their crime and the legal consequences. They just grow numb to the punishment.

In short, getting swept up in the juvenile justice system is often poisonous for the very youths it is intended to rehabilitate. Even among people who administer the current system, there is agreement that the process often fails to help offenders understand the consequences of their crimes. “It’s important to be held accountable and have some consequences, but instead of having a kind of interaction that holds you responsible, there is often little or no interaction,” said Matthew Golde, assistant district attorney for the county’s juvenile justice division.

The people leading two of Alameda County’s major alternative juvenile justice programs are united by a desire to end these vicious cycles.

It is easy to criticize the system, but much harder to change it. In 1992, teacher Rachelle Distefano became the first director of the Law Academy at McClymonds High School. Her school within a school typically attracted students who weren’t academically successful. Distefano managed to engage them by putting on mock trials and taking them to speak at city council meetings. But the students wanted more. “‘We want to do something real,'” she recalled them saying. And after hearing about a San Francisco youth court being run out of the police department, students said they wanted to run a similar courtroom in West Oakland. It would be a real court that would dispense real justice for real juvenile offenders. Distefano’s students were motivated, and so was she.

So along with attorney and soon-to-be judge Brenda Harbin-Forte, and Deputy District Attorney Jon Thurston, Distefano wrote up a proposal for a youth court at McClymonds’ Law Academy. The goal was to prove to the community that students could participate in and ultimately run a legal diversion program.

Some members of the community opposed the initiative. They seemed to fear that it would function as another arm of the police, Thurston said. To others, Harbin-Forte recalled, the very idea of youth sentencing youth was absurd. But the program’s backers endured, establishing McCullum Youth Court as a nonprofit organization that would not be at the mercy of government budgets — like its San Francisco predecessor, which didn’t last. If they were going to go forward with this, Distefano decided, McCullum was going to survive.

The eager students set up shop in the youth services division of the Oakland Police Department. Before they knew it, they were acting as attorneys for real offenders. “Everyone loved it,” remembered Verleana Green, one of the first students to participate. “Plus, it gave these offenders a serious wake-up call.” More than a decade later, she is now a practicing attorney.

Distefano’s students were proving themselves in the community, while first-time offenders were being held accountable for their crimes yet avoiding juvenile hall. “They were making a meaningful difference in the lives of others,” Distefano said.

Fifteen years later, McCullum Youth Court serves around 450 youth offenders a year. It relies upon a mixed bag of private and public funding but lacks financial security. It has expanded rapidly over the last decade and a half, but recently weathered staff reductions.

So does it work? Not until 2009, with funding support from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention under the Department of Justice, did the organization devote resources toward a comprehensive study of its efforts. A recent internal study indicated that 98 percent of youth successfully complete the program without offending again during a five-month period following their initial arrest. And a 2002 UC Berkeley study indicated that only 17.8 percent of youth court participants reoffend in a twelve- to eighteen-month period following the first arrest. Meanwhile, a study of a similar program in Lane County, Oregon revealed that, after three years, 81 percent of participants had kept their records clean while only a little more than 60 percent had avoided arrest in a comparable group of offenders who didn’t go through the program. Other national studies show similarly high rates of success.

Without program-specific data, perhaps the best way to measure McCullum Youth Court’s achievements is to observe it in progress. Twice a month for several hours a night, the court’s staff of adolescents holds more than twenty cases in four different courtrooms — one of which is designed exclusively for middle school students. Associate Executive Director Sean Duren calls it “game night.”

The young attorneys have prepared for weeks, reviewing cases and writing opening and closing statements. The offenders arrive nervously with their parents. Although some clearly have rehearsed their confessions of guilt, the judging eyes of their peers are a new experience. Meanwhile, the jurors, most of who were on trial as offenders only two weeks ago, generally look like they’d rather be somewhere else.

Volunteer adult attorneys act as judges. But first they must be trained by the minimum-wage youth court staff, who are nearly two decades younger than they are. The courtroom is filled with tension and excitement.

On a recent Wednesday night, one courtroom held an offender who was caught with a BB gun at school and then panicked at the principal’s office and fled while under arrest. Another student got drunk and gave a police officer a fake name. A third girl vandalized a school bathroom with a gang-related tag. A fourth youth got caught by the police with a bag of marijuana.

In interviews after court, most offenders expressed gratitude and relief. “I just feel like it’s a second chance,” said the student who fled from school grounds after bringing a BB gun to campus. His father seemed equally grateful. “It avoids my son being labeled,” he said. “That could have really affected his self-esteem — creating a stigma around him if he had to go to juvenile hall. Also, it builds up anxiety, and he is not going to do anything like that again.” The father then gave his son a stern look, and his son nodded in agreement.

The boy caught with marijuana admitted during his trial that he needed to make some changes in his life. He said that since his arrest he has reduced his pot smoking to “only” a few times a week. In closing arguments, youth court prosecutor Jimonte Johnson said the offender has a serious problem and needs substantial intervention. The jury sentenced him to attend a drug-abuse class.

By 8:30 p.m. — after three and a half hours of orientation and then trial upon trial — much had changed. Offenders typically expressed shame, and left having committed themselves to a specific plan to right their wrongs. The adolescent attorneys left the room enjoying a kind of performance high, with the volunteer adult judges offering endless praise and encouraging them to go to law school. And the jurors themselves seemed changed, too. For most, the apathy appeared gone. After seeing up to three cases, these youths likely have a better grasp on the consequences of crime, and with luck become motivated not to end up back in the hot seat.

At age fourteen, Pairoj Sansri was hanging out with the wrong crowd — people who reinforced his apathetic, frustrated attitude. His father was often absent from his life, and his mother was struggling to raise Pairoj and his siblings by herself. His first year at Oakland’s Skyline High School in 2005 was rocky. He said he was “drinking alcohol and smoking weed” and receiving Ds and Fs. He felt frustrated by his situation at home and at school. “I couldn’t stay focused,” he recalled recently. And no one was holding Pairoj accountable for his behavior.

Just months after starting high school, Pairoj took an airsoft gun to school to show a friend. He had bought it that weekend at the Berkeley Flea Market. “I just wanted to let my friend see it,” he explained. “But when I pulled it out and gave it to him, the teacher saw it and grabbed it from him quickly.” Within moments, a security guard was on the scene and called the Oakland Police Department. Pairoj was arrested.

From there, it seemed like Pairoj and his family were on a downward spiral. “I didn’t know what I was going through,” he said. The process was overwhelming and confusing. Making matters worse was the disappointment he felt from his father, who did not live with him at the time. “He doesn’t like guns, and it made him really mad that I had brought it to his house,” Pairoj said. He was suspended for thirty days and spent a month in an alternative placement center — forced, he said, to do elementary-level school work.

Soon after Pairoj’s suspension, he was transferred to Merritt High School — a small, alternative public school for students who have gotten in trouble. At Merritt, Pairoj joined an unstable community of about a hundred students and six staff members. Months of depression followed.

“I hated being at that school,” he recalled. “That part was really depressing.” Classmates would skip school for months at a time but were never punished. Pairoj felt himself slipping. Surrounded by students who seemed to have lost all sense of direction and were constantly misbehaving, Pairoj felt as if he was being conditioned to give up. He desperately needed a solution.

His first glimmer of hope came when he met his McCullum case manager Kayode Powell. Since Pairoj immediately admitted to committing his offense, his case managers concluded that he was a good candidate to go through youth court.

So Pairoj faced a trial run by his peers. And although he felt intimidated and afraid of the outcome, he now believes it was the most useful punishment he could have received. He was ordered to do many hours of community service, attend classes, and serve as a juror several times. He was again facing consequences, but this time, they felt reasonable and thought-out.

“My father was skeptical at first,” Pairoj said. “He thought I should have done it the hard way.” But the appeal of a clean criminal record ultimately attracted Pairoj and his family to youth court. And upon completion, Pairoj’s record remained untainted — but his goals in life had changed.

For the first time in years, he felt motivated. He was genuinely impressed by his peers and their performances in the courtroom. “Initially, I was surprised by it, especially in terms of how far everyone could rise,” he said. Most of the paid attorneys had been in Pairoj’s shoes only a few years earlier. “When they say ‘youth-run,’ it is youth-run,” he said. “But what is most surprising is how far you can go.”

Pairoj took that lesson to heart. From juror to volunteer attorney to paid bailiff to peer advisor, the climb for Pairoj to a position of importance and authority was at times scary, but ultimately exciting. Now, at age seventeen, Pairoj chairs the program’s youth board and is the youngest of the program’s ten scholars. “I honestly don’t know where I would be, but I probably would have gotten into a lot of trouble,” he said, considering his life without McCullum. Just a few years ago, he was facing punishment from the law. Now he is a paid peer advisor with real responsibility.

In the movement known as restorative justice, equal attention is given to all the parties affected by criminal acts — the victim, family, and community. It holds offenders accountable for crimes while simultaneously helping to restore the lives of the victim and the offender. Sujatha Baliga, the justice coordinator of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, said it is all about “victim-identified victim’s needs.”

In the traditional American criminal justice system, crimes are treated as offenses against the state, and the state decides the appropriate punishment. But in restorative justice, crimes are seen as offenses against people, and the victim and the offender together decide the appropriate consequences. Through such a process, supporters believe, offenders can develop empathy for their victims while victims can ensure firsthand that criminals are held accountable. The philosophy is that offenders will understand their wrongdoing much better if they face their victims and not just judges. Meanwhile, victims have an opportunity to move past the trauma of the crime. “It seems like some big theory of justice, but it’s not,” Baliga said.

She believes that the legal system often misses the point. A stolen car may be a minor inconvenience, where a swiped handbag is devastating and psychologically traumatizing. The legal system would consider the value of the stolen goods, but restorative justice would consider actual harm to the victim. The woman who lost a handbag would be given proper attention and the robber would not be dismissed simply because the theft is deemed “minor.”

Restorative justice is based upon ideologies present in many indigenous cultures throughout the world. Notably, the Maori people of New Zealand protested the placement of their children into youth jails in the 1980s because it directly conflicted with their traditions of group healing within families. In 1989, after much debate, the New Zealand government followed the ways of its indigenous people and implemented a countrywide system called Family Group Conferences. Its success has been astonishing. Two decades later, New Zealand has virtually shut down its youth incarceration facility — maintaining fewer than 75 beds where it once had space for more than 1,000.

Half a world away from New Zealand’s success, Baliga is piloting projects designed to replicate that country’s success. Although the Express was not allowed to sit in on any of the conferences because of their sensitivity, Baliga described in detail the complicated, labor-intensive process that restores the lives of victims and offenders, pre-adjudication. After separate private meetings with the victim and offender, the two parties are brought together for one intense gathering with their families. The victim shares personal feelings directly with the offender, who must then make amends through apology and reconciliation. Ultimately, the offender must propose his own solution, which requires the approval of the victim.

It is an arduous, time-consuming, and emotional process for all involved. But if successful — and Baliga said the first few pilot cases have truly exceeded her expectations — everyone leaves the situation satisfied.

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which was founded in 2005, aims to fundamentally change juvenile justice by integrating these philosophies in every step of the process, from pre-adjudication programs to post-incarceration. Executive Director Fania Davis is leading what she calls Circles of Support and Accountability that use similar methods to help reintegrate incarcerated youth back in to society and ensure that they don’t return there. In the long run, Davis said, they hope restorative justice is the default method throughout the system, so that the courtroom would be used only for arrested youth who claim innocence. “It’s about shifting the focus from systems to community,” Davis said. “What is really going to make our community safer is not longer prison sentences.”

Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth has launched several pilot projects this year — taking on only a handful of cases as their guinea pigs. In its latest and most important grant application, however, the program is asking for $2,711,254 so that it can help hundreds of youth in schools and in pre- and post-adjudication cases.

Dante Green stole a bicycle when he was fourteen years old. It was a relatively small crime, but the West Berkeley native had committed an act of petty theft and was caught in the act. “It was juvenile; it was adolescent,” he said. “I just wanted to have fun.”

His act of fun opened the door to a world Dante knew little about. He entered the juvenile justice system, starting with a court date, a sentence of community service, and a lot of probation rules that he was conditioned to defy. And over a span of four years after his first offense, Dante was in and out of court ten times.

Raised by his great-grandmother with no father or mother present in his life, and surrounded by peers who reinforced his bad behavior, it was only natural that Dante disobeyed probation rules and missed court dates. “I was defying it because I was young and I didn’t want to deal with it,” he said. “I come from a low-income, impoverished area. I was a product of my environment.”

And for his great-grandmother, Leavy Perkins, it was exhausting. “By junior high, oh boy, he was getting in a lot of trouble with those boys,” she said. “It was hard to go to court. I hated it.”

Dante saw little connection between his theft and his punishments — a nightly curfew, regular visits to a probation officer, hours of community service. He was familiar enough with the process to know that any petty crime would result in the same meaningless consequences. So his list of violations grew longer and longer. “It kind of became a way of life,” he said.

On top of routinely violating probation, Dante would very often cut class. A typical high school day involved waking up late, taking the bus to school, roaming the halls aimlessly, cutting out at lunch, and lying to his great-grandmother about his whereabouts. After going in and out of court so many times, he felt like nothing mattered. “I would just lay down and wait for the next day,” he said. “It is kind of sad when you think about it.”

About a year after he stole the bike, the Berkeley High School sophomore made another bad decision. He and a friend stole a laptop computer from a teacher. His friend lied about his own involvement, so Dante took the fall. The system again put him right back where he started.

Soon after the laptop incident, Dante stole a single dollar from that same friend, and his friend reported it. That third theft was the clincher for Dante’s probation officer. The court sent Dante to the correctional facilities of Camp Sweeney to take classes and earn his GED.

That day of sentencing was one of the few times that Dante actually had a meaningful experience in court — and not because he was scared of the consequences or regretted his violations. From his seat in court, he saw his deeply disappointed great-grandmother in the audience. “I saw her crying, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. “And she is usually such a strong woman. I wanted to embrace her, but I couldn’t. … She just walked out.”

That frustration was followed by months of apathy in detention. Dante said Camp Sweeney wasn’t that bad. But he was away from home and confined to camp grounds — nine months of programs, classes, and separation from his great-grandmother. “It wasn’t hell,” he said. “But of course I wanted to leave; I wanted to be with my family.”

However, Dante did relatively well while he was detained. He followed all the rules and regulations, and successfully participated in his classes and programs. That made him a perfect candidate for Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth’s very first Circle of Support and Accountability. The Camp Sweeney staff agreed to let Dante leave on weekends to work with Fania Davis and mediator and facilitator Jack Dison. For Dante, it seemed at first like just another program to get through, but he said Dison seemed genuine in their first meeting, and Dante agreed to participate.

“Usually,” Dante said, “you get the regular — an ex-con comes in to scare you and that’s it.” The Circle of Support and Accountability seemed a bit different, but once he actually started, he realized that it was really like nothing he had ever expected. “They are genuine people who provide love and care,” he said.

Every week, starting in December 2008, Dante had the support of a small group of several staff members and relatives convened solely for him, to help him in his transition out of incarceration while also holding him accountable and making sure he was taking the necessary steps to move his life forward. Along with discussing his original crime, the meetings also helped him make real life goals, and they expected weekly reports about his progress. With a group of people listening and discussing his situation exclusively, it was the most positive attention Dante had ever received.

In one crucial meeting, the staff also brought in a surrogate victim to act as the owner of the computer that Dante had stolen, since the actual victim could not be reached. This, Dison noted, is an important part of the process, because it helps the offender understand the extent of the harm he inflicted on his victim.

If Dante set goals for himself in a meeting, the following week he would have to explain his progress. Instead of an earlier curfew, he was developing life skills and objectives. Instead of more frequent probation meetings, he was talking to people who would volunteer their time to listen to him every Friday evening.

Today, the meetings happen every other week in his West Berkeley home, and he hopes they will continue for a very long time. “He has changed quite a bit,” Perkins said of her great-grandson. “He is more humble now.”

On a recent Friday night, the meeting felt joyful — like a gathering of friends as they all greeted each other with hugs. Perkins even served a freshly baked cake. When it was his turn to share, Dante announced to the group that he had just gotten hired for a full-time paid position as an intern for a San Francisco consulting firm. But the excitement was quickly clouded by a serious discussion of the difficulties of going to school and working full-time.

After years of being truant in high school, Dante — in his first semester out of detention — earned a 3.75 grade point average from Berkeley City College in the spring. He now has ambitions of earning a degree in political science and transferring to UC Berkeley. Planning to take online classes next semester, Dante said in the meeting that he never thought it would be difficult to work and go to school at the same time. He was excited, too, about earning real money. But after a long debate about education and work, the group together decided that they would make a final decision about the issue next week before Dante starts his new job.

Despite the challenging meeting, Dante’s current dilemmas are good ones. He is off of the roller coaster of the failing juvenile justice system, and on a path to do right for himself. To compensate his victim, Dante is required to pay the court $350 for the computer he stole. Last week, he paid back half and he is on track to pay it all off by the end of August.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition