PICTURE THIS: A courtroom taken over by youth filling important roles — like the bailiff, clerks, and lawyers — except for the judge, who is a volunteer professional worker in the community. That’s what Centerforce Youth Court in Oakland offers youth offenders.
Before Centerforce Youth Court opened, there was McCullum Youth Court. McCullum was a program that served youth, helping them reconnect with the community after being committing a crime. In 2011, McCullum was forced to shut down because of lack of funding. Centerforce later took up the role, keeping some of McCullum’s services while adding more options for youth. Centerforce is a youth court designed only for first-time offenders with misdemeanors cases. It also teaches youth the basics of law.
Youth Radio’s Darelle Brown got a chance to sit down and talk with Darren White, Program Manager at Centerforce, about the organization’s achievements and how a youth can obtain their services.
YOUTH RADIO: What is the purpose and goal of centerforce youth court?
DARREN WHITE: For Centerforce Youth Court our goal is to keep as many youth out the traditional juvenile justice system, and that is our goal. Once you get on that paperwork and you get caught up with the system, it’s a hard system to navigate.
YR: How does Centerforce Youth Court work?
DW: A youth gets diverted to our program a few different ways. One, [he or she] can be diverted directly from the police officers that have contact with that youth. Also schools can make referrals, and also directly from probation. So dependent upon the offense that a young person has, it’s how they can get diverted to us. We don’t serve felonies offenses only misdemeanors. This is about youth helping youth. It’s peer led. That’s the main difference between regular court and what youth court is all about.
YR: What are considered misdemeanor offenses?
DW: Fights, possession of marijuana, alcohol, possession of airsoft guns at school — stuff like that. That’s how the schools refer. They call the police when kids get into a fight and if the kid is a first-time youth offender, they can get diverted. It’s about that young person taking accountability for what they’ve done, restoring the harm they caused to themselves, their community, and their family. We use restorative justice practices in our program.
YR: Can you give us an example of restorative justice and how it works in your program?
DW: There’s two kinds of justice: there’s punitive justice, which is you get in trouble, you say you’re bad, you go to jail and you do your time and you’re on probation. Restorative justice is you admit to what you [did], and you take accountability for it, and then you restore the harm that you’ve caused to that person. Say, you broke into my car and you stole my laptop and in restorative justice it will be you making amends to me, as the direct person, [rather] than going to jail and being on probation for theft.
YR: Do you recommend the city of Oakland to use this system more?
DW: Youth should get the opportunity to do restorative justice instead of going directly to the normal court system, depending upon the offense. Now of course, if there are some violent offenses and felonies, then that’s just proper place for those offenses. But any youth nowadays that is getting caught for basically adolescent behavior, like tagging, smoking or drinking, they should come to a restorative justice youth court process and get the opportunity to make amends and connect them to different services.
YR: What are the steps a youth will go through as soon as he/she is sent to your organization?
DW: When we get that case my staff contacts the family, we send you a letter letting you know we have your case. Once you take accountability, we give you a court date and then you get on the stand, [and] you tell your side of the story to a jury of your peers. They listen to your story and they come back with the verdict of what [you need] to do. When you complete your program, we then send that information back to the arresting agency and it’s like you’ve never been arrested.