Taking the Time to Make Juvenile Court Work
A couple of weeks ago, I was in juvenile delinquency court and as often happens, a particular case got me thinking – and rethinking – about the system as a whole.
A 14 year-old, whom I will call Sarah, was charged with misdemeanor assault. She had hit another girl at the foster care facility where the two were living. Sarah readily admitted to the charge, and the judge then moved to disposition, similar to sentencing in adult court. A counselor reported that Sarah was receiving therapy and doing well in a class at the mediation center on “conflict coaching.” Her probation officer recommended that she remain on court supervision under the same terms.
The judge, however, wasn’t satisfied. “I’m concerned,” she said to Sarah sternly. “This is the third or fourth adjudication for assault in the past two years. What is changing to help you get in charge of your emotions?”
Sarah stood and looked down at her hands. “I don’t know.” The courtroom was silent.
“Your Honor,” her public defender began, standing with his client. “Sarah has experienced significant trauma. She is struggling with serious issues that are deep-seeded. This is not to excuse her behavior, but to explain that she is receiving therapy and making improvements.”
DC Superior Court Helps Teens with Mental Health Problems
A Superior Court in Washington, D.C., is redirecting minors with mental health problems from the juvenile system to treatment and rehabilitation. JM-4, a former juvenile mental health division court, is led by Magistrate Judge Joan Goldfrank, who is known for listening to families and dispensing wisdom and services to kids.
“The message I want to give them is that they are supported,” Goldfrank told the Washington Post. “The whole point of juvenile justice is rehabilitation. How could we not do it on the kids’ side?”
JM-4 is one of a dozen courts in the country that aims to help young people with mental health issues without incarcerating them.
From the Washington Post:
No Remorse? What Happens to Youth Who Fail to Display Remorse in Court and Why Should We Care?
Sitting behind her strikingly barren desk, with the bright, mid-winter sunlight breaking through the trees and streaming through her office windows, Martha Grace Duncan, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, in Atlanta recounts the case of nine-year-old Cameron Kocher. As she speaks her small, compact frame remains nearly motionless, betraying no emotion. But her eyes tell the story, portraying the internal mix-up of sadness, passion and nerdy intensity that she feels about the topic. Duncan may not wear her heart on her sleeve, but if you pay attention it’s not hard to find.
In March 1989, on a cold, snowy day in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, Kocher fatally shot a seven-year-old playmate with a high-powered hunting rifle. He had been playing video games with the girl at her house when she told him that she was better at the game than he. Soon, the girl went outside to ride snowmobiles with other friends and Kocher, angry that his parents wouldn’t let him join them, retrieved the rifle from his father’s gun cabinet, loaded it and pointed it out the window of his home. Then, as the girl rode with a friend on a snowmobile, Kocher shot her in the back.
Minutes later, as the girl lay dying in her living room, Kocher returned to the girl’s house telling another playmate, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t be sad.”
As Kocher’s case progressed through the courts, many took the quote, coupled with the shooting, as evidence of a cold, remorseless child. Uttering that sentence would have severe repercussions for Kocher, beginning with the question of whether he would be treated as an adult by the courts.
In 2002, Duncan published a lengthy article for the Columbia Law Review that explored how expectations of displays of remorse affect how children are treated in the juvenile justice system, particularly in adjudication and sentencing. Duncan, who also holds a doctorate in political science, applied elements of psychology, sociology and literature to several case studies in the article.
Youth Transfers to the Adult Corrections System More Likely to Reoffend
Juveniles transferred to adult corrections systems reoffend at a higher rate than those who stay in the juvenile justice system, according to a new report from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). The report also found insufficient evidence that trying youths as adults acts as a crime deterrent.
Entitled “You’re an Adult Now,” the report published in December 2011 is based on the findings of three-dozen juvenile justice and adult corrections experts convened by the NIC in 2010 to identify challenges when youth are transferred to adult court.
Highlighted in the report, written by Jason Ziedenberg, director of juvenile justice at M+R Strategic Services, was research by the Centers for Disease Control that found youth transferred to the adult system are 34 percent more likely than youth who remain in the juvenile justice system to be re-arrested for violent or other crimes.
The safety of juveniles in adult prisons is also a serious concern, according to the report, which cites a Bureau of Justice Statistics study that found, 21 percent of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005 were under the age of 18. The same study reported 13 percent were victims in 2006. However, the report notes only one percent of inmates are younger than 18.
A legal view: Why juvenile life without parole sentences are a mistake
“All they want is a second chance”- Steven Watt, Senior Staff Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program
Bobby Hines was 15 when he, 19-year-old Christopher Young and 16-year-old Darius Woolfolk went to confront James Warner. Warner was accused of having stolen a jacket from a local boy as payment for drugs. When the trio came upon Warner, 16-year-old Woolfolk shot and killed him. Hines had neither touched the weapon, nor the victim, yet he was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to serve “the rest of [his] natural life to hard labor and solitary confinement.” He had just finished his eighth grade.(1)
Bobby’s co-defendants, Young, who provided the weapon, and Woolfolk, who fatally shot Warner, were convicted of second-degree murder and are serving paroleable life sentences. These sentences and Hines’ sentence are vastly different. Why the discrepancy?
What happens to adults with juvenile records?
Adolescence is a challenging time for most people. Teenagers undergo significant developmental, physical, psychological, and social changes during a condensed decade of time. We have all done embarrassing things as adolescents; however, we are comforted by our coming of age and the slow regression of those memories. According to a recent study, while 1 in 3 Americans have some contact with the juvenile justice system – most are cited for infractions. Youth who commit crime are in the minority (never more so than now), and even then, the infrequent contact they have is typically for a low-level misdemeanor (such as petty theft or vandalism) that often results in a community-based remedy and the dissolution of their delinquent record upon reaching adulthood.
But what of the teenagers who embark on more serious delinquent careers? An October 2011 blog by the Criminal Justice Degrees Guide, catalogues 8 different celebrities with juvenile records who have a successful and illustrious adult life. These celebrities include among others: Mark Wahlberg, Allen Iverson, Danny Trejo, all of whom where arrested for serious violent offenses as youth. In addition, both Merle Haggard and Danny Trejo served time as adolescents in California’s notorious Youth Authority (the state’s institutional system for juvenile offenders).
While most juvenile offenders do not continue on to an adult life of crime, including even the most serious offenders (as above), there can still be real-life consequences for adults with juvenile records. In California, for example, a juvenile court record is not automatically sealed upon reaching age 18. In fact, to have your juvenile court records sealed you must affirmatively file a petition with the juvenile court in the county where the conviction occurred. But not all juvenile records are sealable. Since the passage of Proposition 21 (2000), certain serious juvenile offenses committed by a 14-year-old or older are barred from sealing.
Talking back to zero tolerance
In the year that I have worked as a juvenile defender, I have noticed patterns in the types of cases that land on my desk. For instance, now that the school year is in full swing, the overwhelming majority of my juvenile caseload arises from school discipline issues. It seems — at least here in southeast Georgia — as though schools are either no longer interested or no longer equipped to handle discipline in-house.
Almost every public school in my rural circuit has police presence in the form of the School Resource Officer (SRO), a uniformed police officer who maintains an office on the school campus. These officers maintain such a vigilant school presence to deter criminal activity such as drug possession/sale, weapon possession and other violent or dangerous activity. The reality is quite different.
Increasingly, local school administrators are relying on these SROs and a broad Georgia statute that criminalizes “disruption or interference with operation of public schools” to handle children with behavioral problems. What exactly are the definitions for “disruption” and “interference”? That is a great question, as the Georgia Code fails to define either term for the purposes of explaining exactly what conduct the state Legislature sought to criminalize. However, I can tell you that “disrespectful language” and “refusing to follow the commands of teacher” can land a child an invitation to juvenile court.
A child who is found to be delinquent of “disrupting or interfering with the operation of public schools” in Georgia, is subject to the punishment of a high and aggravated misdemeanor. This likely means probation for a length of time with a litany of conditions for the child to comply with, but could also result in a 30-day stay in a Regional Youth Detention Center.
When I was in school, disruptive children were punished by being assigned extra homework, given detention, in- school suspension or out- of- school suspension. The severity of the punishment varied with the severity of the actions; for example, talking back to the teacher might result in after-school detention, while getting into a playground fight would likely result in suspension.
Maryland's juvenile justice system is now a little more transparent
Recently signed legislation in Maryland requires the state’s Department of Juvenile Services to report the recidivism rates for each juvenile in residential treatment, broken down by program and placement. This is excellent news for juvenile justice reform in Maryland.
According to an analysis by Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services, this reporting will not cost any additional taxpayer dollars, and yet the citizens of Maryland will receive two huge benefits. First, the legislature and the public will now have easy access to data on recidivism, broken down by type of program. This is a key reform because general recidivism rates can mask the success and failures of different programs, and particularized data is necessary to make informed legislative choices.
Second, the simple act of being required to report this data to the Maryland legislators will put the onus on Maryland’s juvenile justice stakeholders to improve their system. By having to publicly state their Department’s outcomes annually, Maryland will reach new levels of accountability in juvenile justice each year.
This bill is win-win: no additional costs and positive returns for taxpayers and justice in Maryland.
Harlem Youth Court takes on juvenile justice
It’s a familiar courtroom scene: An advocate scribbling on a notepad prepares her closing statement. A judge presides, pounding her gavel to bring the hearing to order. She turns to the offender, a young man being tried for assault, and asks,
“Do you swear to tell the truth?”
“Yes,” he replies.
This is when things start to look different from a traditional courtroom. A juror stands, thanks him for attending, and says, “We just want to let you know we’re not here to judge you or criticize you.”
The juror, named Milagros, is a high school student. Everyone participating– judge, jury, advocate, clerk and offender – is under 18. At the Harlem Youth Court, kids who have committed low-level offenses can avoid formal prosecution and instead tell their side of a story to a jury of their peers.
MSNBC documentary gives a voice to youth sentenced as adults
Editor's Note: "Young Kids, Hard Time" originally aired November 20th. MSNBC will re-air it on Saturday, November 26th, at 2 pm PST / 5 pm EST.
There are many imperfections in the nation’s criminal justice system. So many, it’s hard to know where to start.
Take your pick: The public defender system, death row, life without parole or the whole idea of housing convicts together in hopes of rehabilitating them.
Poke around a bit. You’ll find some disturbing problems. None, however, will shake you to the core like seeing a child doing hard time behind bars, serving a sentence twice as long as he is old.
This is what you get in “Young Kids, Hard Time,” an MSNBC documentary premiering Sunday night at 10 p.m. EST.
Here is a film that shines a light on a very dark side of the criminal justice system: the more than 200,000 kids who are tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults. Sometimes busted in their early teens, these children remain in the juvenile system until they reach the age of 18. This is when they are transferred to adult population facilities where they serve the rest of their sentence with some of the country’s most brutal and hardened criminals.
“Young Kids, Hard Time” shows what life is like for these incarcerated young people and examines the possible long-term impact on society.