Berkeley Police are relying heavily on the nonprofit Donald P. McCullum Youth Court program to make sure first-time juvenile offenders, cases the understaffed District Attorney’s Office often don’t get to, face some concrete consequences for their actions.
The national juvenile caseload has more than quadrupled since 1960, from 400,000 cases a year to nearly 1.8 million, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
District attorney offices around the country, overwhelmed by the growth in juvenile crime cases, often only prosecute the most serious cases. For every 1,000 juvenile vandalism cases in 1997, for example, nearly 400 were
simply dismissed without coming to trial.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has been no exception to this trend.
“What they’re doing is choosing cases of habitual offenders and prosecuting them,” said Amy Halbrook, director of youth services for Alameda Country.
The problem with this approach, said Halbrook and others, in that first-time offenders who commit lesser crimes such as vandalism and petty theft develop the impression that there are no consequences for their actions.
In some cases, their parents aren’t even notified of their arrest, according to youth court literature. Faced with no consequences, the youth continue to commit crimes, said Halbrook and others.
That’s why Sergeant Steve Odom of the Berkeley Police Youth Services Division has used the youth court alternative for more than 30 of Berkeley’s first-time offenders since the Berkeley Police Department began participating in the program last summer. And he’s continuing to refer cases the “court” as fast as he can.
“Typically, you can almost see the pattern beginning with kids where they’re not admitting guilt,” Odom said. “That kind of ignoring reality is dangerous,” he said. This is because kids see no reason not to move on to bigger and bigger crimes, he said.
“If you’re looking to reintegrate them back into society they have to be able to say, ‘I was wrong,’ and move forward from there,” Odom said.
Halbrook says the program works. According to an informal study by the Oakland police department, 42 percent of all first time offenders reoffend within two years. That compares to only 16 percent of youth court offenders who reoffend within two years, Halbrook said.
The youth court process begins with a police referral. Youth court coordinators then contact the offender’s parents and call them and their child for a conference. If the youth admits his guilt, he or she is eligible to participate in the youth court. As an incentive, every youth court defendant who complies in full with his sentence will have his record wiped clean.
Youth court is in session two nights a month in the real courtrooms of the Alameda Country Administration Building. Typical cases include petty theft, vandalism, graffiti, simple assault, battery and trespassing on a school campus.
Youth Court juries are made up of past youth court defendants. They get to take on the defendants one-on-one, asking them pointed questions, watching them squirm as they try to come up with answers.
“If you could go back and change one thing, what would you change?” one teen-aged juror asked Wednesday, gazing across at the Berkeley teen defendant on the witness stand.
“I would have went home when I went down to the corner,” the youth said sheepishly. “I would have went straight home.”
Charged with stealing a bicycle and possessing alcohol, the youth admitted to drinking, but said it was his friends who took the bike. He would not have been charged, he claimed, if he’d left his friends when he saw they were committing a crime.
After about 20 minutes of noisy deliberation inside the jury room, the jury announces a verdict: the offender must attend a conflict resolution class, serve once as a juror at a youth court hearing, complete 17 hours of community service, attend alcohol and drug counseling, and write a letter of apology to his grandmother.
All sentences include a conflict resolution workshop and at least one tour of duty as a juror. Beyond that, the jury uses its discretion to recommend up to 60 community services hours, a variety of counseling programs and classes, introspective essays and letters of apology.
“There is a sense of fairness because they’re being judged by their peers,” said Ismail Ramsey, a member of the Donald P. McCullum Youth Court Board of Directors who volunteers as a judge for the youth court. “That’s something youth don’t have in the (regular juvenile justice system), when you’ve got some judge on high who decrees the sentence.”
Judges are the only adults inside a youth court, where prosecuting attorneys, defending attorneys, bailiffs and the clerks are all youth volunteers from local high schools.
The judges’ job is to impress upon the kids the seriousness of the courtroom proceedings. At the outset of each hearing they remind the youth that, since they are charged with real crimes, they could easily have ended up in the real juvenile justice system, where punishment is meted out in the form of jail time and hefty fines. Furthermore, they tell youth court defendants that if they fail to comply with their youth court sentence, they could be referred back to the DA’s office for formal prosecution.
“It’s serious enough so that they think, ‘if this is going on here, who knows what’s going on inside a real juvenile (courtroom),” said youth court judge Butch Ford, a deputy district attorney in Alameda County.
But for youth court coordinators, the bottom line is less about punishment than it is about helping kids who need positive intervention in their lives.
“Tonight is the night that is most uncomfortable for youth, but after the hearing we try to put the offense in the past,” said Oakland Youth Court Coordinator Jarvis Hurts.
“To me, I don’t want to punish any kid,” Hurts said. “I’m just trying to show them what’s going on and help them out.
“It was a dumb mistake. All kids make dumb mistakes. How can we hold them accountable and give them some different skills.”
Kids and parents alike are sometimes cynical at the beginning of the youth court process, Hurts conceded, but they become more and more involved as time goes on, he said.
Once a youth court jury hands down a sentence, the youth court coordinators work with the offenders and their parents to choose community services and counseling options that appeal to them. Through a careful process of case management, they try to address some of the underlying problems that may have driven the kids to criminal behavior.
They also schedule community service hours and other commitments during after-school hours when children across the country are most likely to engage in criminal behavior if left to their own devices.
“All kinds of studies show that kids who are involved in after-school programs commit fewer crimes.” Halbrook said.
“(Through the youth court process) they have some practice making positive decisions, and also the have a support network,” Halbrook said. “Our kids become friends. The really support each other.”
“We try to empower them,” said Hurts. “Because if you can empower youth, they’ll take over from there. They know where to go.”
Berkeley High student Malaika Umrani, a youth court volunteer, said the youth court is a constructive alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system, which “just scares and traumatizes young kids.”
Umrani said there will always been those kids who take advantage of the system.
“For some kids its just like, ‘Oh, I have to do this for so many hours,’ and then they go right back to what they were doing,” Umrani said.