McCullum Youth Court turns to community for financial support
on September 23, 2010
McCullum Youth Court, a student-run justice system in Oakland for first-time middle and high school-age offenders, turns 17 this Friday. That makes it older than many of the young people who serve as its lawyers, bailiffs, and clerks. But instead of a birthday party, Youth Court organizers are scrambling to invite as many people as possible to a different type of event—a fundraiser.
A legally binding program that sentences teenagers to community services and counseling instead of juvenile hall, McCullum typically holds court nights twice a month in the Wiley Manual Courthouse downtown. To be eligible to participate, Youth Court offenders must have admitted guilt—in regular legal proceedings—for a misdemeanor like petty theft, vandalism, or marijuana possession. And an adult, typically the arresting officer, must refer them to the program. After being tried by other teens, the youth court offenders receive sentences consisting of community service hours, jury duty for other teens, and workshops on resisting peer pressure and building self-esteem.
Although the program has received national recognition, it is in financial peril. McCullum lost about 60% of its funding this year, due to federal budget cuts. Friday’s 9:00 p.m. fundraiser, which will be held in Uptown Oakland at Bar Three Fifty-Five (named for its address at 355 19th Street), is an effort to raise funds for McCullum. “We need to increase support from the community,” said David Wallace, the executive director of McCullum Youth Court. “Eighty percent of the giving that’s done in this country is through individuals. It’s a shift to look beyond grants, but it’s the way things have to go.”
When the Youth Court is in session, nearly all the people in the courtroom—the jury, the bailiff, the clerk, and the lawyers—are teenagers from local middle and high schools. Until recently, students who volunteered for the latter three of these positions were given small stipends to compensate them for their training and case preparation time.
Paid adult staff at McCullum includes case managers who follow up with individual offenders as they complete their sentences; coordinators who help train teenaged attorneys, bailiffs, and clerks; workshop providers for youth offenders; and some administrative staff. Adults from local organizations also volunteer as judges on trial nights, after undergoing a brief training, but do not receive a stipend.
Until this year, most of McCullum’s financial support came from federal funds set aside for justice programs. But “with the recent economic blast,” Wallace said, “the funding has gone away.” This past January, Wallace learned that Youth Court would not be receiving an expected $400,000 in federal funds. “It was horrible,” he said. “We had to cut a lot of our staff, including one who was a young mother. That was really, really hard.”
To fill the funding gap, McCullum has begun an ambitious campaign to shift to private donations—a strategy that has been adopted by many kinds of programs that used to rely on public funding. Oakland public schools, for example, have tried similar strategies to fill the gap created by $122 million cut from the school district’s budget this year. Local businessmen, community groups and volunteers organized both the Oakland Back to School Rally, in which students received free school supplies; and the Uptown Block Party, hosted by Luka’s Taproom and Lounge, which raised nearly $10,000 for selected Oakland schools.
McCullum Youth Court is an independent nonprofit organization, but Wallace said the community directly benefits from its services. McCullum sees approximately 400 cases per year, diverting youth from the juvenile justice system into programs meant to strengthen their connection to the community. Youth offenders are sometimes required to write letters of apology to victims or family members.
Unlike the juvenile justice system, where between 60 to 80 percent of youth go on to re-offend, the Youth Court’s re-offending rates are consistently between 4 and 8 percent during the year the teenagers are followed by the program. “We’re a cost-effective program,” Wallace said. “From start to finish, one youth offender will cost about $500 at MYC. In the traditional system, you’d spend an average of $45,800 per youth.”
In the past year, five of the ten junior staff positions at MYC have been cut, and the organization has had to discontinue the $150 per month stipends that were paid to youth attorneys, who are recruited from local high schools. The adult staff members, including Sean Duren, McCullum’s Deputy Director, were forced to assume multiple roles in order to take on the same caseload. “We don’t want to turn away any of the youth who are referred to us, and so far we’ve been successful,” Duren said. “But it’s still a strain on the staff. We all have to wear multiple hats, and it’s stressful.”
Duren said existing cuts to the program could hurt the program’s effectiveness. “We usually see about 40 cases per month, but we may have to reduce it to about 30 starting in October,” he said, adding that this could force young people to wait much longer for their Youth Court trials. “The shorter the gap, the easier it is for kids to make the connection between their actions and the consequences,” he said. “I’m afraid the delay might put more youth at risk for getting into trouble again.”
In recent months Youth Court staff members have tried different ways of raising money, including an arrangement that lets people buy Oakland Raiders tickets through McCullum, and a fundraiser at a restaurant that belongs to the parents of one of the court’s youth volunteers. Both efforts have met with mixed success. Wallace estimates they have sold about 30 Raiders tickets this year, and that around dozen people went to the restaurant and mentioned the Youth Court. “We have a pretty small database of contacts, so we’re a little behind,” said Wallace. “We’re hoping to increase awareness in the community and see those numbers grow.”
In its efforts to better publicize the organization and to promote fundraising efforts, McCullum has tuned to a technique for fundraising—social networking.
“Please spread the word: MYC needs your support!” said Wallace in one of the first wall posts on the McCullum Youth Court’s Facebook page, which was created in June of this year. “Make a donation of any amount, talk to your city [leaders] about supporting this amazing program, or anything else you can think of to help!”
The latest status update gives details for the organization’s upcoming fundraiser, Friday’s $5 per person, sliding-scale entry at Bar 355. It’s not your typical birthday party, but Wallace is hoping for a strong turnout from the community. So far, the post has garnered three “likes”— all from MYC staff.
Despite the setbacks, Wallace says he is optimistic that the organization will not be forced to close its doors. “This program is too important to go away,” he said. “We don’t want to put any additional burden on the community, but this program is unique. There are no other youth courts in the country that are independent and operating on this scale. We’re one of the only ones who do gender-specific workshops. This program is one of Oakland’s jewels.”
Duren agrees, citing the longevity of the program as a testament to its importance. “We’ve been here 17 years for a reason,” he said. “I can only hope we’ll be here for 17 more.”
Image: Tatum Brooks, 16, addresses the jury as lead attorney during a trial at McCullum Youth Court.
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