Oakland teens try peer cases at McCullum Youth Court

Youth attorney Qadir Bilal, 16, prepares for court at MYC's headquarters.

Youth attorney Qadir Bilal, 16, prepares for court at MYC's headquarters.

Qadir Bilal strode confidently to the witness stand, in his colorful bow tie and crisp black shirt and trousers. He paused. He fixed his gaze on the person before him, a young woman who had been caught in possession of marijuana—and who, like 16-year-old Qadir, is in high school.

“You didn’t remember having 4.9 grams of marijuana in your purse?” Qadir asked.

“No,” she said.

“Do you have a cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“Do you carry your cell phone in your purse?”

“Yes.”

“Do you go in and out of your purse to get your cell phone?”

“Yes,” she answered slowly, as she shifted in her seat.

“And you didn’t notice 4.9 grams of marijuana in your purse?”

Silence. Two-dozen pairs of eyes turned to look at the young woman as she mumbled something about a hard-to-find side pocket.

It was “Court Night” at Oakland’s Wiley Manuel Courthouse, and this marijuana possession case Tuesday evening was one of ten on the schedule of the McCullum Youth Court (MYC), a non-profit diversion program for youth offenders, also referred to as “YOs.” MYC used to try 20 cases per court night, but due to Oakland Police Department budget cuts, the number of referrals to the program dipped, says MYC’s Deputy Director, Darren White. “Several of the 80 officers the department lost last year were the community resource officers who were stationed at each school,” he adds.

Despite these setbacks, MYC continues to administer Court Nights every two weeks to offer a second chance to juveniles in the eastern cities of Alameda who commit misdemeanors such as petty theft, or drug possession. Some of these youth are referred to the program by school officials. But the vast majority are arrested by police, and it is at the police department’s discretion whether the case is appropriate for youth court. Once MYC gets the case, the police have already determined, through either investigation or because they caught the youth in the act, that the crime was committed, says Duren.

The cases that are referred to McCullum, where teenagers work together to decide on appropriate consequences for young people who’ve gotten into trouble, all have the same characteristics: a first-time misdemeanor for a 13 to 18 year old offender who is enrolled in school.  “We don’t take violence cases, where the youth physically hurt someone,” says Duren. “It’s beyond our scope.”

The program gives young people a way to stay out of the criminal justice system, which many argue does more to hinder than help. “If you tell a kid he’s a criminal sooner or later he’s going to believe it,” says Oakland native Qadir, one of MYC’s youth attorneys, and a senior at St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley. “And sooner or later you won’t have to tell him he’s a criminal because he knows that he is. Because his elder told him that he was.”

For MYC’s Executive Director, Sean Duren, that’s why the program’s restorative justice model emphasizes youth-led mentorship. Watching their peers, like Qadir, “gets young people to think, ‘Wow, I could do that,’” says Duren. “And, ‘he sounds like he’s got his stuff together, and he looks like me.’”

Youth attorney, Tatum Brooks, a senior at Oakland’s College Preparatory High School, agrees. “A lot of people look up to their friends, so if you’re doing something positive then your friends will want to get involved,” she says. “I think that just us – as youth being involved in this – we’re helping in a small way.”

Tatum and her cohort of MYC youth leaders may be helping more than she thinks. After teenagers have received their youth court sentences of community service, and taken the program’s self-improvement workshops, they often come back to MYC to take on leadership roles themselves. “I’ve actually seen someone that I defended come back and get a role as a lead clerk,” Tatum says.

White says MYC has seen several teens change their lives after the program. One young man, he says, came through as an offender about five years ago, when he was 14. Since then, he has worked as an attorney and a bailiff – “and is now our Development Associate,” White says. “He’s in college and one of our right hand men for the program.”

Youth Court Night has all the elements of a scene from “Law and Order” – the prosecution and defense, a judge, a jury, the bailiff, observers, and the verdict – except all the actors are under the age of 18. From preppy khaki pants, polo shirts, and floral patterned blouses, to long graphic T’s, baggy jeans, sneakers, and blue and pink hair, each kid looks different, as does his or her individual case.

In order for peer jurors to determine what form of intervention is necessary, they can ask youths on the witness stand what happened, how they feel about what they did, and what underlying factor might have led to their offense: problems in their family, for example, or the death of a loved one.  They also ask about goals, ideals, and plans for the future.

“I want to finish school, go to college, and get a good job,” said the young woman who faced Qadir’s stern cross-examination. It was a dream echoed by other youth offenders throughout the night. “The main reason why a lot of youth don’t want to get an education is because they say, ‘What’s the point of it?’” Qadir said. As he waited for the jury to deliberate, the tall teenager sat on a bench outside the courtroom and rested his back against a wall. Shifting his gaze towards the window, the aspiring civil attorney said, “But if you give them a point for why they should get an education, then they’ll stay out of trouble.”

That’s why each youth offender’s sentencing is three-pronged: he or she must fulfill community service hours, attend mandatory workshops, and serve as jurors for other juvenile cases. Case managers work with each youth to determine what kind of community service project is appropriate to the offense. A convicted vandal might be assigned a clean-up project. A convicted thief might be required to work for the place he or she stole from. It’s difficult, though, to convince store owners to allow the kids back in, says White, so they are more often placed with an organization in their neighborhood as a way to give back to their communities.

Every youth offender must attend either the “Wise Divas” workshop for girls, or the “Wise Heroes” workshop for boys. Facilitated by formerly incarcerated individuals, these workshops serve to both warn and inspire, White says. Depending on the crime, the jury may also decide that a young offender needs counseling or supplementary classes on issues like anger management or substance abuse. These workshops are important for driving home important lessons, like the one Qadir explained to jurors in the closing argument of his marijuana prosecution. “I want her to know that going against the law for some kind of euphoria is not helpful for getting out of our problems,” he told the jurors. “Because once we come out of that euphoria, the problem still exists.”

Jury duty is an obligatory part of every young offender’s sentence, and a critical component of the program. Being a juror is a way for juveniles to be “on the other side of the bar,” Duren says.  “Instead of being an offender, we try to get them involved so they can be an attorney, bailiff or clerk. And that’s why jury service is so important, because they get to see other kids working in that capacity.”

Among the questions youth defense attorneys often ask an offender in front of the jury is, “Are you involved in any sports or extracurricular activities?” It’s an important question to ask in a city like Oakland.  “If there were more recreational outlets for youth in the Bay, and Oakland specifically, then there would be less concentration of youth crime,” says Qadir. It’s why programs like this are helpful, he says. “‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’ Most of them come here because they have nothing else to do or they feel like ‘Well, I really don’t have any options so I might as well do this,’ and that leads to poor decisions.”

MYC’s staff argue that providing more recreational outlets for a youth is also an alternative to the proposed teen curfew ordinance – which would restrict kids under 18 from being outside after 10 pm, and primarily targets youth in east and west Oakland. “I think it’ll help with some, but not with others,” says Angela Adams, MYC’s Law and Justice Programs Coordinator. “It’s about giving them something to do.”

Tatum agrees, and says she doesn’t think that youth will abide by the curfew. “If youth have a lot of boundaries, they’ll want to rebel,” she says. “We need to target them in different ways.” Qadir, though, says he believes a curfew could be a “blessing in disguise,” and given that “most murders happen between 12 am and 2 am,” could ultimately save lives. “Some kids may argue, ‘Man, I don’t get to do anything,’” he said as he got up to go back into the courtroom. “But how much can you actually do when you’re below the age of 18?”

“All rise!” After deliberating over the young woman’s marijuana case, the jury of four had returned with a sentence. Motionless, everyone watched quietly as the court clerk unfolded a piece of paper that would decide the young woman’s fate. Fifteen hours of community service, she read, plus mandatory attendance at a “Wise Divas” workshop, two jury duties, and a substance abuse awareness class. There was a collective sigh. It was time to move on.

For Qadir and the other MYC youth leaders the night was not over. Despite the fact that he had school the next morning, Qadir had two more cases to prosecute, both involving petty theft. But as the young leader said in his closing argument, with a self-confidence that made it difficult to remember he is only 16: “You can’t do what you want to do, unless you do what you got to do.”

2 Comments

  1. JT Lewis

    I am so very proud of you Qadir, your Parents and Mama Titilayo for giving you a firm foundation to stand upon…

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