East Palo Alto Poised to Launch Youth Court

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Nizam Harris, 12, is sworn in as the defendant during a mock trial for the newly created youth court in East Palo Alto on Jan. 29. (David M. Barreda/ Mercury News)


Youth and community leaders in the crime-riddled Northern California town of East Palo Alto have created an alternative juvenile justice system that is run almost entirely by youths.

The youth court, now in the testing stage, empowers teens to act as bailiffs, lawyers and jurors in minor juvenile cases ranging from shoplifting to drug use. Teens must acknowledge their guilt before appearing in the court, where specially trained youths argue the case and decide on a sentence.

Keeping youth out of the criminal justice system is the main goal of the court. It practices restorative justice, focused on compensating crime victims rather than punishing perpetrators.

“If they feel like prisoners, they’re going to act like prisoners,” Shareka Porter, the 16-year-old founder of the court, told the Mercury News. “Instead of punishing them, we need to try and help them.”

Typical sentences handed down by the court include essay writing, community service and youth court jury duty. Those teens who fail to fulfill their sentences are referred to the traditional juvenile justice system.

Community leaders, including a local pastor, a former mayor and a retired judge, have lent their support to the project, and some local attorneys are providing free advice.

In East Palo Alto, one of the poorest and demographically youngest communities in the Bay Area, youth crime is a serious problem. Only 37 percent of youths graduate from high school in the town, where most residents are Latinos, African-Americans or Pacific-Islanders.

East Palo Alto is not the first city to try youth courts; they operate in San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Cruz in California and elsewhere across the country. Studies have shown peer justice to be relatively effective in reducing recidivism. Still, county officials are concerned about violating equal protection laws, because youth in other California cities do not have access to youth courts.

In East Palo Alto, questions have also arisen about the maturity and fairness of the young jurors. Police officer Rami Khoury expressed skepticism about the court after he witnessed a mock trial for a shoplifter that ended with a sentence of 10 hours of community service.

“The jury felt sorry for the suspect – well, what about the victim?” Khoury told The Mercury News. “I know it’s a mock trial, but I think it should be more than 10 hours.”

The online article includes video and a slide show of a mock youth court trial. Feb. 3, http://www.mercurynews.com.