Judicial Discretion and the Golden Rule: Selfless Judge Puts Children’s Needs First in Her Courtroom

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As a newly hired criminal justice faculty member at a local university, I was determined to reach out to criminal justice professionals in the community in order to expose students to the realities of the criminal and juvenile justice systems in the United States.

That’s why I contacted Lisa Colbert, who is a juvenile court judge in Chatham County, Georgia. She agreed to talk to a juvenile justice class.

Judge Colbert shared with them a personal experience that I believe reveals the extent of her character and commitment as a professional within the juvenile justice system. Moreover, her testimony serves a vibrant example of hope in a field that is often full of  questionable ethics.

She told the class that as she became familiar with her position in the early stage of her career, she discovered state law in relation to the sealing of juvenile records. She was well aware that both youth and their families might not be aware of such legal provisions. Therefore, she considered making a decision that underscored the premise that acquiring legal knowledge is meaningless if using it is stifled.

She knew her decision could negatively affect the social atmosphere and her working relationship with courtroom staff and colleagues. Upholding the law on sealing records could produce extra work that could be interpreted as disrupting the status quo plus establish a controversial reputation for her where her motives would be questioned. In addition, failing to uphold the law could have been justified by Colbert.

In the face of such barriers, Colbert exercised her discretion from a moral premise informally referred to as the “my child” philosophy. This is a fundamental expression of the golden rule: treating others how one expects to be treated. Interestingly, this metaphysical principle is endorsed by the world’s most dominant religions.

Moreover, the “my child” approach is also supported by research. For instance, in “The Eternal Criminal Record,” James B. Jacobs identifies the damage a criminal arrest or juvenile record may have on people’s lives. He writes about the lack of updated and accurate arrest record information within law enforcement agencies; the government’s preoccupation with transparency, which has led to the disclosure of arrest records that may jeopardize the preservation of confidentiality within the juvenile justice system; how law enforcement agencies sell arrest record information to private vendors, and the failure of various government regulatory measures.

The impact of inaccurate arrest records may hurt both youth and adults. This includes:

  • a police decision to arrest someone who they believe has a previous offense
  • unlawful and extended periods of detention
  • being stigmatized for certain allegations, which often serves as a barrier to employment; educational, housing and child custody decisions.

Colbert’s decision to treat youth as if they are her own clearly identifies the use of her professional authority in a positive manner. This underscores a fundamental truth — that facilitating youth wellbeing extends beyond the scope of a child’s behavior. It demands a deliberate and conscientious commitment toward the wellbeing of youth and their guardians. Her approach offers hope to those who experience the juvenile justice system.

I was fortunate to witness the impact of her efforts on my class. As Colbert was greeting students individually, I overheard one tell her that she wanted to be like her in the future. To which Colbert responded by encouraging her to aim higher …

Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is assistant professor of criminal justice at Savannah State University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”  

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