Does anyone want the rest of their life defined by what they did at 14?
I don’t think so, and neither does our Supreme Court.
We have come a long way since the first juvenile court in 1899. I have compared our juvenile justice journey to a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, and to the frustrations of piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.
Just when things seem to be at the lowest, and we can’t find pieces that fit, the Supreme Court drops a landmark decision that sends our ride soaring again, and a few puzzle pieces are found. That brings a sigh of relief and the hopeful feeling that putting the remaining pieces in place is just a matter of time.
The court first slapped us into a sobering reality in the ’60s with the In re Gault decision. That reminded us that kids too are deserving of the due process needed to temper our passions when reacting to a kid’s misbehavior. Too often those reactions are impulsive and ineffective, if not harmful.
What happened to 15-year-old Jerry Gault not only violated his right to due process, but also violated the principles of good parenting.
Should a parent punish their child without some evidence that he is guilty of the accusation? And assuming the parent doesn't believe their child’s innocent plea, is it right for a parent to ground their child at age 15 to his room until age 21, and for a nonviolent prank committed by many teenagers?
Of course the answer is no, but that is what the judge did to Jerry. I wonder if that judge would have treated his own son the same way?
I seriously doubt it, but that's what happens when juvenile court judges fail to exercise the most basic parenting principles while sitting on the bench. The concepts of due process and good parenting are very similar and overlap.
In his book, “The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting,” Laurence Steinberg provides guidelines based on the top social science research for good parenting. Among those 10 principles, and the most important one, is that what you do as a parent matters. Kids are watching us, mimicking us and how we treat them will decide how they treat others.
Treat your child with respect is another important principle, he says, because “Children treat others the way their parents treat them.”
Steinberg states that not only is respectful treatment of children necessary, but it must be consistent, which goes to the heart of due process. Our disposition toward the kids in the courtroom must be consistent, and that disposition must always be respectful. That's why we call it due process.
What does it say about judges who don’t practice fair treatment when the kids before them have been treated unfairly at home?
When we fail to display common decency from the bench, we validate the mistreatment they receive at home. For children such behavior from adults becomes the norm, and so these kids treat others just as they have been treated, and they go on to commit crimes.
There are too many in our society who complain about the inconvenience of due process, how it works in favor of the accused and promotes crime. The irony is that fairness works to reduce crime, especially among kids whose brains are still developing.
Fairness is about doing what is right, and what is right is about dignity, and dignity is about decency, and decency is about respectability. When a system is not fair, children will not learn to do what is right, dignified, decent and respectable. It’s difficult enough that many kids come to our courtrooms without these values, and this is why many end up in our courtrooms, but we make them worse when the system behaves like the parents who don’t model good parenting skills.
Good parenting also demands that we explain our rules and decisions to our children, and this is true in how we process fairness in the courtroom. The juvenile court is set apart from all other courts because they are places for “carpe diem” moments, to teach kids fairness by doing due process.
The Gault roller coaster climb lasted about two decades until professor John Dilulio’s prediction of “superpredator kids” created fear among lawmakers. This prediction was a myth, but the damage was done. States passed laws in response to this prediction, treating kids as adults and making incarceration an easier option for judges.
Looking back at this “get tough” trend of the ’90s, it can be characterized as a cancer recurrence. The Gault decision is the chemotherapy that sent the cancer that infected the adjudication stage into remission, but two decades later those unnoticed cells spread to the disposition stage.
Kids may be getting the process due them, but the cancer shifted its attack to hurting kids in a different way — executing or incarcerating them, sometimes for life, and sometimes without the possibility of parole.
Let’s lock ’em up and throw away the key, but no worries because on the way there we gave them notice, an opportunity to confront their accusers, a lawyer and a fair trial.
So long as we gave the kid due process, we can do whatever we want to him. Or can we?
“No, you can’t,” said the Supreme Court.
And just like that, when we thought we couldn't find any more missing pieces to our puzzle, and the roller coaster was at another low, the Supreme Court came through again, 38 years after the Gault decision, ruling that kids can’t be executed and they can’t be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The justices admonished us, saying it’s not good enough that kids are treated fairly on the road to sentencing. Once they arrive to be sentenced, the state can’t impose a sentence that’s contrary to “the evolving standards of common decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
They reminded us that due process is not only about the fairness of the process, but it’s also about the validity of the law for which one must be fairly processed.
The Supremes seized upon the medical findings that the prefrontal lobe of our brains, which translates emotion into logic, is not developed until age 25. That's right, kids are wired to do stupid things, and for no explanation except they are kids.
There is something wrong, or indecent, about executing an underdeveloped brain or incarcerating it for life with no chance for release.
It’s called the Eighth Amendment, or the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Those juvenile justice practitioners who had already seized upon the teenage brain research to reduce reliance on detention and emphasize evidence-based programs were empowered by the court’s decisions to stay the course.
Others followed suit beginning in the late 2000s, including governors, legislatures and even judges, executing, codifying and ordering reforms of different kinds and in places outside the justice arena. This continues to this day, which brands our contemporary era of juvenile justice as revolutionary.
With the election of a new president, many are anxious about what this means for juvenile justice. Will the roller coaster take its plunge, or will the puzzle pieces become difficult to find?
There is no turning back, even if the president tries to eliminate federal support of states doing what works for youth.
And that's because the revolution is grounded in what works, and that is forever. A president has a lifespan of eight years.
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor's Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
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