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.

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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.

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