Page One

Youth Court gets boost from feds

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Wednesday May 09, 2001

The City Council accepted a federal grant for about $50,000 Tuesday that it will turn over to the nonprofit that runs the popular Youth Court in which juvenile offenders are tried by juvenile attorneys and sentenced by juvenile juries. 

The Donald P. Cullum Youth Court program began operating in Oakland in 1994 and later expanded throughout Alameda County. The program has been working with juvenile offenders from Berkeley since August and is now in the process of renewing its contract. 

“We’ve had 33 offenders from Berkeley since August,” said Youth Court Executive Director Paula Bruce. “Twelve kids have already completed the program and only four have failed.” 

Bruce said a case is considered a failure if juveniles re-offend or if they don’t complete their sentences. Bruce said she anticipates a high level of success from Berkeley’s Youth Court because of the keen interest expressed by parents and students.  

“We’ve had 92 kids fill out forms expressing interest at Longfellow Middle School and Berkeley High School,” Bruce said. “And of those, 32 have already volunteered as jurors and five more are training to be Youth Court attorneys.”  

Sergeant Steve Odom, who coordinates Berkeley’s program, estimated that he refers three or four juveniles a month to Youth Court. He said the program is a good option for first-time juvenile offenders. “It’s a restorative justice format that gives kids a chance to make things right and not have a crime go on their records,” he said.  

There has been an explosion in juvenile crime nationally in recent years and Youth Court is considered an effective alternative for first-time offenders. Since 1960, the U.S. juvenile justice system has seen its caseload more than quadruple from 400,000 cases to nearly 1.8 million in 1997, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 

Local court systems have been inundated with so many cases that they prosecute repeat offenders of serious crimes, while letting first-time offenders go without punishment. 

Youth Court is a legally binding alternative to Juvenile Court for first-time offenders. If an offender does not complete his sentence, the case is referred back to juvenile court. 

According to Bruce, most offenders referred to Youth Court have committed crimes such as petty theft, vandalism tagging and simple assault. 

The attorneys, juries, court clerks are all between 12 and 17 years old. The only adult that participates in the process is the judge, who will usually have experience with some aspect of the law such as attorneys or high ranking law enforcement officers. Berkeley’s Chief Dash Butler is scheduled to serve as a judge in July. 

Youth Court is held in real courtrooms at the Alameda County Administration Building in Oakland twice a month. The court hears about 32 cases a month from all three cities.  

To be successful in Youth Court, offenders must admit responsibility for their actions. “It’s the first step in the process,” Bruce said. “Without that it’s clear offenders won’t benefit from the program.” 

The minimum sentence in Youth Court is one mandatory jury service and participation in a conflict resolution course. Beyond that, juries can sentence offenders up to 60 hours of community service as well as making them attend behavioral workshops such as anger management.  

“Juries are the toughest on shoplifters,” Bruce said. “Usually a first-time offender for shoplifting gets the full 60 hours of community service.” 

Bruce said juries assign community service in the same neighborhoods the crimes were committed in. Berkeley offenders can do service work at Sausal Creek, at Berkeley Youth Alternative or at any community organization that serves the local community. 

Other sentences include writing five-page essays about the difference between right and wrong, writing letters of apology to parents, school employees or others in the community. 

Bruce said that many of the teens who successfully finish Youth Court come back to volunteer as jurors and attorneys. “I think they get a sense that it works and they come back because they want to make a difference,” she said.