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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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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?"

"No."

"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.

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