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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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."


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