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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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.


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