How to Use Language in Court that Youth Understand: Get the New Models for Change Guide

As Shiloh Carter outlined in "Kid Courts Should Use Kid Friendly Language," it is no secret that when youth end up in court, they are often confused and uncertain about the purpose of the proceedings, and what's expected of them when they leave. Why? In spite of the fact that judges and other court professionals try hard to make sure youth know what’s expected of them, much of the language used in court goes right over their heads.
TeamChild®—a nonprofit law office based in Washington State—recognized this problem and developed interventions to help youth understand more of what goes on when they appear in court. With the support of Models for Change, a national juvenile justice reform initiative funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we worked with the Washington State Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network (JIDAN), to create a tool—the judicial colloquies—to train judges and other court practitioners on the use of developmentally appropriate language in court proceedings.
We decided to focus our work on the court orders issued when youth are released prior to adjudication, and when they are put on probation. At these stages of the proceedings, a youth might face detention time if they violate their court orders.

We began with a review of research and literature about adolescent development and language, as well as efforts within the juvenile justice system to improve communication with adolescents.
Before we introduced the colloquies tool, we wanted to get baseline data on the experience of youth in court. We developed a survey tool and systematically interviewed 60 youth right after either an initial appearance hearing or a disposition hearing where they were given conditions of probation. Although we interviewed them minutes after they left the court room, on average, youth understood no more than 30% of the court directives.
We took it as a given that judges and others in the courtroom had tried hard to explain to youth what they needed to know. What was going wrong?
To help us figure that out, we assembled focus groups with youth—10 middle school students and 14 high school students became our advisors. Most of the youth in the groups had experience with the juvenile justice system and therefore had previously been exposed to the language in the forms used in court. Despite this, the youth confirmed that in general, they didn’t understand the language used in the pre-adjudication release and probation orders, which provides the framework for what judges say to the juvenile offenders.
In fact, we learned that some commonly used words and phrases, which we thought were perfectly clear, were in fact confusing to the youth.
For example, when we talked with the kids about “appearing in court as required,” a number of them (even older high school students) thought we were referring to the way they were supposed to look when they came to court: i.e. hair combed, modestly dressed. We explained what it really meant, and finally one young man said, “Why don’t you just say, ‘You have to come to court when you’re told to’?” That was a “Duh!” moment for the adults in the room.
With the work and advice of experts in hand, both adult and juvenile, we drafted colloquies that we hoped would be helpful in bridging the gap between what lawyers and judges say in court and what kids need to better understand.
We implemented the colloquies at two pilot sites and returned three months later to see if they had an impact on how much youth understood about their court proceedings. We were astonished by the remarkable increase in comprehension of the court directives, and the court proceedings overall. There was a 128 percent change in what youth understood about their initial appearance hearings, and the youth given probation conditions understood 100 percent of the conditions they were given.
To help judges, probation officers, attorneys and others implement the colloquies—or tailor their own—we developed a new guide, called the "Washington Judicial Colloquies Project: a Guide for Improving Communication and Understanding in Court." We hope you will download it now and share it with your colleagues. For more context and explanation, I urge you to listen to a webinar I gave on the judicial colloquies for the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Rosa Peralta is the Research Associate at TeamChild in Seattle Washington. Rosa has worked with a wide range of private, public and volunteer sector organizations to support and improve services for young people. Rosa was the project coordinator for the Washington Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network (JIDAN) and Models For Change (MfC). Rosa has developed and implemented projects that have had a national impact and have improved outcomes for juvenile justice involved youth. Rosa co-founded and manages the Washington Juvenile Defense Leadership Network.
Rosa taught Sociology and also developed and managed recruitment and retention programs for underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Michigan. Prior to going to the University of Michigan, Rosa worked for many years as a criminal defense investigator at one of Seattle’s public defense agencies.
*Photo at top by Flickr user Sebastian Anthony

Updated: February 08 2018