Fed up with a juvenile justice system that doesn’t seem to be working as well as it should, East Palo Alto is turning to an alternative method — prevention.
East Palo Alto is a two-and-a-half square mile area with 30,000 residents, about 68 percent of whom live below the poverty line. With one of the highest incarceration and felony rates for minors, it is a low-income, high-crime city that is full of at-risk youth.
Children in East Palo Alto are often caught between their parents’ demands and what they want for themselves, says East Palo Alto Youth Court Executive Director Toni Stone. If a child has relatives that have gang relations, then the child, by blood, is also a part of that gang.
East Palo Alto Youth Court is a community-centered courtroom staffed by youth who are trained to serve as the attorneys, jurors, bailiffs and clerks, and it is currently the only alternative to keeping juveniles out of court.
Lately, it has been focusing more and more on its Alternative to Suspension (ATS) program, partnering with local schools, like Cesar Chavez Academy and the 49ers Academy, to prevent children becoming subject to punitive measures and intervening before they can be put into the juvenile system.
According to a report by the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, from 1998 to 2010, the average age of known homicide offenders was 20.6 years at the time of the homicide. The youngest known offender from this sample was only 15 years old and the oldest was 27 years old.
Statistics show that once children are in the juvenile justice system, they have extremely high recidivism rates of between 85 and 95 percent, Stone says. There is also a high correlation between school suspension and likelihood of juvenile justice contact. That’s why the youth court targets students in sixth through eighth grade, in the hope they can catch at-risk of suspension youth and steer them onto a better path.
To illustrate the effectiveness of the youth court’s work, Stone told the story of a young man who was arrested for marijuana offenses and appeared before the court.
“He knew that if he wanted to be successful, he was going to have to make a change,” Stone explained. “Even today, he credits (East Palo Alto) Youth Court with the change in his life.” Today, that young man is a second-year student at San Francisco State University and is reportedly doing remarkably well.
“Of the youth who were served through the alternative to incarceration program, none have recidivated [so far],” said Stone, smiling proudly. And while it’s harder to monitor the effectiveness of the suspension diversion program, as far as Stone and other organizers can tell, none of the students have gone on to become involved in the juvenile justice system.
“If they had opportunities to be doing productive things that excite them…they would be electing to do those, but a lot of times these kids don’t have the option,” said Stone, bemoaning the lack of after-school programs and other such activities. “They’re bored and they see other people in their community involved with these negative things as just a way of passing time and that’s often how it starts. [They think:] ‘Let’s just go start some trouble, get some attention, even if it’s negative attention.'”