Juvenile Justice Reform: Fixing the Information Mismatch

[This topic of this column is so critical to reform of the juvenile justice system, we've reprinted it in its entirety from the Criminal Justice blog of Change.org with their kind permission. It originally appeared under the title, "Fixing the Information Mismatch in Juvenile Justice." --Ed.]
In 2007. I met a soft-spoken young man whom we will call “Ivan.” Almost everyday, he wore a large sweatshirt with cats and dogs on it. When I asked him if he liked animals, his face lit up and he told me that his dream was to become a veterinarian. He really loved taking care of animals, he said, and he was especially good with dogs. 
I knew Ivan because he was in the Bronx Family Court on a delinquency proceeding for allegedly throwing water on his teacher’s laptop at school. Ivan said it was an accident, although his teacher didn’t think so.
While awaiting a finding in his case, Ivan was successfully attending Saturday community service events, he was going to his counseling appointments, and he was present at school when his probation officer checked on him. Unfortunately, Ivan’s mom didn’t quite have her act together, so Ivan would find himself breaking up fights between her and her boyfriend, or taking care of her when she was too high to do it herself. Eventually, the court recognized that Ivan’s mom was not in a position to mother him as required by law. Without other family members or friends to take him in, Ivan was put into a juvenile jail to await the finding in his case.

There are many, many sad elements of this story, but I want to focus on the lack of understanding that Ivan and his mom had about his court proceeding. Indeed, in a recent report recommending improvements to New York City’s alternative-to-detention (ATD) programs, prepared by the Youth Justice Board at the Center for Court Innovation, the youth authors note a key finding: young people and their families often lack sufficient and necessary information to participate meaningfully in juvenile delinquency cases.
The board members – who spent more than five months interviewing over 30 policymakers and practitioners, conducting site visits to New York City’s ATD programs, and leading focus groups with system-involved young people – found three important factors in this information gap.

  • First, the young people surveyed said that they never received a clear explanation of how the juvenile justice system works or how their actions could affect their case outcomes.
  • Second, this confusion about the complicated legal process made young people very cautious about accepting advice on difficult decisions from their lawyers. Without knowing why their lawyers would be talking to judges or other people in the courtroom, the youth suspected that these adults were, in fact, working against them. Likewise, lawyers said that communication barriers – and the difficulty of reaching young people by phone – undermined their ability to properly represent their clients.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, parents and family members had no idea how much impact their actions have on judges’ decisions about whether to release or remand (incarcerate) their children. While judges expect parents to attend all court dates, parents do not know this, nor are they always able to miss work for their children’s court hearings, which can drag on for months. Knowing how much stress they are causing their parents, many youth are hesitant (and feel poorly equipped) to explain their cases to their parents. 

The Youth Justice Board has made some simple and excellent suggestions for how to solve this problem:

  • Once they have been arrested, young people should be provided with informational materials that diagram what the process will look like, offer tips for best outcomes, explain their rights, and define key terms they will hear.
  • Youth and their families should also have access to somebody – not their lawyer – who can answer all of these questions in person, in court.
  • Additionally, lawyers should use plain language to explain their role and to specify what information they can and cannot share with other court players.
  • And finally, the young people themselves should do their best to show up for their court dates on time and make sure their lawyers have up-to-date information (like a recent school success) that will help their case in court.

These are all steps that juvenile justice systems nationwide can implement reasonably and in short order. Fulfilling the promise of justice for young people like Ivan is not something that can wait.
For more information about the Youth Justice Board, you can listen to a podcast with the program coordinator and some of the board members themselves.

Kate Krontiris created Rethinking Reentry, the blog of the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force. She worked for 5 years on problem-solving justice projects with the Center for Court Innovation and is now pursuing a joint degree in public policy and business at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Updated: March 21 2018