Centerforce Youth Court in Oakland serves offenders charged with first-time misdemeanors. (Matthew Green/KQED)
Around Christmas break last year, Michaela Wright tried to steal a pair of headphones from an Apple store in Emeryville. And for a minute, she thought she’d gotten away with it.
“I walked straight out the store and I went into Forever 21 and was shopping there for a minute," Wright says. "And as soon as I walked out, the man approached me.”
Wright was 17 at the time, a high school senior from West Oakland with a spotless record. She’d just sent out her college applications, and was in the final stretch toward graduation.
But as she sat in the security office in handcuffs, the future looked bleak. She had no clue what would happen next: A trial? Maybe even jail time.
When the police came, they arrested her for petty theft. And she did end up going to court.
But it wasn’t much like anything she’d imagined.
Centerforce Youth Court serves offenders charged with first-time misdemeanors. On her court date, Wright saw a lot of kids her own age. Just about everyone in the Oakland courtroom was a kid -- the jurors, her defense attorney, the prosecutor, even the bailiffs and clerks.
The only adult at the proceeding was the judge.
On a recent evening, kids waited nervously in the hallway for their trials to begin. The court serves about 120 offenders each year, usually referred by police or school officials. To participate, offenders have to first confess to their crimes.
The docket was full that night – cases ranging from vandalism and minor drug possession to theft -- as in the case of one shy young lady named Preva, who stole some makeup before a piano recital.
"Preva wanted this night to be perfect, every little thing, so she went to a store and stole some makeup," Gabrielle Battle, a petite 13-year-old serving as Preva's attorney, tells the jury.
"She was blinded by the idea of perfection and looking perfect for her big night. ... I will prove to you, the jury, that Preva was just a young kid making a mistake, and she is sorry for what she did."
Following opening statements, the jurors ask the defendant questions and then deliberate. Decisions are legally binding: If defendants complete the sentences, their records are closed, as if the crime never happened.
"At the end of the day, their record is closed to the public," explains Angela Adams, the court's program coordinator. "On some job applications, there’s a form where they check off the box, ‘Have you ever committed a crime?’ and they’re able to check the box that says ‘no.’ "
Adams' mission is to keep as many of them out of the system as possible. And she says they get it -- recidivism is very low.
Centerforce is one of more than 1,000 youth courts nationwide and roughly 120 in California that follow a restorative justice model, where offenders are sentenced by their peers. It’s a growing effort by cities and counties to reduce their juvenile caseloads.
"When you come here, you actually get to, like, go to workshops, do community service, do things that can actually give back to the community," says Akili Moree, another feisty 13-year-old who joined the program voluntarily last year and works the courtroom like a mini Perry Mason. "And you can learn from your mistakes, instead of just receiving a punishment that you’ll really get nothing out of."
For Michaela Wright, things ended much better than she expected. The jury gave her 12 hours of community service, three workshops and two jury duties. She plans to start college this fall, with a clean record.
Wright says she appreciates that the process wasn’t just focused on punishment, and wishes she could say the same for her parents, who were none too pleased about her arrest.
When asked if she got in trouble at home after her arrest, she simply replied: