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One of the courtrooms in session as part of the Donald P. McCullum Youth Court in Oakland, where low-level juvenile offenders are sentenced in a court run by their peers. ( D. Ross Cameron, STAFF FILE)

Different choices usually yield different results — and Marcel Nelson isn't sure where he would be right now if he had chosen a different path.

He has thought about some of the likely outcomes. He could be out on the streets hustling, or in and out of jail like his parents. Or, the most permanent, and terminal, of scenarios: He could be a statistic in Oakland's homicide total.

"I really have no idea where I'd be right now," Nelson said, sitting in the offices of McCullum Youth Court in downtown Oakland. "I'm afraid to think about it."

Nelson gives credit to McCullum for keeping him out of those scenarios. Now, the 20-year-old Oakland resident is in college studying psychology.

Founded in 1994 and named after former Alameda County Superior Court Judge Donald McCullum, the McCullum Youth Court is one of the oldest youth courts in the nation, handling more than 50 cases a month. The court, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary, is a youth-diversion program that first-time offenders with misdemeanors can choose as an alternative to the more traditional juvenile-justice process. In youth court, cases are tried and sentenced, with the defendant represented and prosecuted by youth attorneys and sentences issued by a jury of peers. Youths also serve as clerks and bailiffs, as both offenders and young people interested in the legal system can apply for jobs at the court.

Sentences usually are a combination of community service, self-help classes and workshops offered at McCullum, in addition to having to serve on some youth juries.

"I was kind of shocked at first," said Nelson, recalling his own case. "There were a whole bunch of kids that were going to give me my sentence. I wasn't really expecting that."

However, according to those who help run and who have gone through the program, that is the court's greatest strength — being judged by your peers as well as offering opportunities to youths interested in the legal system.

"The peer-to-peer justice just seems more effective," said Destine Wivagg, who like Nelson chose to come to McCullum after getting arrested as a juvenile. Wivagg now serves as a junior case manager working with female offenders. "Also, here you get a chance to talk about what you did with other youth. If you go to juvenile hall, you don't really talk about what you did and why you shouldn't do that."

Karen Gorrostieta, 21, a former offender who went through the youth court and now works as a junior staff member in its community relations department, added that just watching the youths control the court and legal process makes most juveniles respect it more.

"You see all these kids in court, and they're lawyers and everything," Gorrostieta said. "You start to think, 'I want to be like that.'"‰"

According to Darren White, director of public relations at McCullum, the youth court has an extremely low recidivism rate. Nearly 98 percent of youths who come to McCullum never return.

"We don't have a magic wand," White said. "It's not like we can wave it and the kids will never get into trouble again. No. But we support the youth here fully.

"Our goal is to keep as many youth out of the traditional juvenile justice system. Once a youth gets involved in the system, it can be very hard to get them out."

Nelson is the first to admit he did not come to McCullum seeking a new direction in his life. He was turning 18, however, and wanted a clean record entering adulthood, and knew completing the McCullum Youth Court's sentence would clear his record.

However, in clearing his record through the program, he also got a clearer outlook on his future. He now works at McCullum as a case manager with male offenders while he attends school.

"It's strange working with these kids who are just a little younger than me," Nelson said. "I was just in their boat six or seven years ago. But I love it."

Details
To find out more about the McCullum Youth Court, to donate or to view
a brief documentary about the court, go to www.youthcourt.org.
Inside
Researchers calling for state to shut down its pricey youth prison system. A13