Opportunity Court: A New Take on Juvenile Justice Reform

As mass incarceration continues to be at the forefront of discussion in this country, leading advocates are looking for new ways to go about juvenile justice. Santa Clara County, through Judge Lucero, has been seeking alternative ways to approach the process of juvenile court as well through an innovative program called Opportunity Court. Follow youth journalist Kymeira Stewart as she went to the one year anniversary of Opportunity Court.

Sandra, a recent high school graduate, in a moment of reflection says,  "I wish I could tell my past self, 'Come into the program, because there are a lot of people who care for you.'"

Sandra was addressing a crowd on April 16th, 2015, at a new form of the court process for juveniles called Opportunity Court, held a graduation at the Center for Training and Careers (CTC).

Going into the event, I felt open minded to what CTC had to offer, but quickly found out this was not an ordinary court experience.

Walking into the CTC Opportunity Court, the set up was not what I expected. I expected a regular courtroom setting, but found nothing regular. There were two rooms, the first set up was more of a resource fair where the judge and probation officers were hoping the youth would take advantage of the possibilities that were offered to them. The youth were allowed a window of opportunity to choose the program that best fits their need to finish their probation. These resources consisted of representatives from community centers, colleges, support groups, and cultural centers.

The next room is where the make-shift courtroom is held. The fold-up chairs were a bit new, though I think thats where the alternative kicks in being a whole different look than normal court rooms. Accompanied by speakers on each side, the environment was very open, another difference from typical courts.

While observing court, about 15 youth came in and out to discuss their probation hearings.

I was also surprised to find the judge, Judge Katherine Lucero, using a different approach when talking to the kids. The judge seemed genuine and looked for progress in the kid’s probation. Reflecting on her tone, her voice felt like a piece of home rather than a scolding. She positively reinforced good behavior with them, writing their name on a white board, rewarding them with gift cards for progress and good behavior. As the judge sat on stage, it brought a more “I want to help” vibe because of her approach.

Normally, young people lack a voice in the courts, but at Opportunity Court they were provided the opportunity to speak for themselves. When the judge asked questions, the young people responded instead of their Public Defender like in normal court. The youth responded with clarity and honesty even when it was an issue they were having with their probation. It was the remarkable honesty of their relationship — the youth and judge — that had me in awe. Utilizing this court process, prior and during the actual hearing, youth are assured both communication and a trusting relationship with the judge. That dynamic is rarely given in traditional courts. 

During this time as I took notice, I'd realized the full potential in this program to grow the youngsters into the citizens they should be acknowledged as.


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