Steve Reba: Better Than Not Trying

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With the confederate battle flag high atop a pole in the foreground, he trudged up the courthouse steps.  It was a toss-up as to what made it more difficult for him to move, the oversized jumpsuit hanging off his thin frame or the shackles running from wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle.  His mother looked at him, then at his juvenile correction officer escort, then at me.  She was crying.

The officer let mother and child speak for a moment.  They moved off to the side, and we asked the officer why our small, gaunt client still had clothes that were three sizes too big.  His answer was something to the effect of he’s so much smaller than the other residents, and the facility doesn’t stock jumpsuits that size.  Sensing his answer to be inadequate, he jumped into a monologue on the facility where he currently worked, the facility he worked at previously, and his retirement that was days away.  He spoke with the boldness that comes with leaving something entirely.  He chastised the system, its failures, its apathy, its infectious numbness.

His discontent waned and he directed his attention back to the youth in chains, summoning him into the courthouse.  Mother hugged son.  Son, unable to separate his arms to complete the action, leaned into his mother’s grasp.

I sat in the hallway outside the courtroom jotting down some final notes before the hearing.  There was no holding cell, so the officer sat in the opposite corner of the hallway next to the youth who was despondently swatting at flies circling his head with both hands.  After a few swats, each one a little less enthusiastic than the last, he gave up and put his head in his bound hands.

The dejection was familiar.  Weeks before, I walked into the holding cell in a juvenile court.  My client, awaiting her motion hearing, sat head in hand.  In the room that was a five-foot by five-foot pen, she spoke about being treated like an animal.  Her shackles were a single chain, running in a crisscross from hand to foot.  Her state was so poor that when the bailiff permitted her parents to see her before the hearing, they both immediately began to cry.

That sorrow was short-lived, however.  Upon the court’s granting of our motion, the bailiff literally walked over to the youth and removed her shackles.  Mother, father and daughter cried at the defense table, and the child left the courtroom with her parents after nearly two years in detention.

The youth across the hallway with flies zipping around his matted hair desperately needed a similar win.  Twenty months in restrictive custody with older, larger and far more serious offenders had taken its toll.  His mental health was deteriorating.  The youth who spent his entire school career in self-contained special education classes was now receiving no education at all during his frequent stays in solitary restriction.  When permitted to come off solitary restriction, he was constantly abused by other inmates. When we were able to speak, every conversation began with a sullen voice uttering the same words, “when are you getting me out of here?”

It was a fair question.  Even pressed at full speed, the state habeas corpus process is a slow moving beast.  From the filing of the petition, to the answer, to a hearing being set, it had been over four months.  That being said, our witnesses were present.  We were prepared for the hearing.

So when I walked over to him and asked the officer to leave us so we could chat, he began the conversation in the same way, phrasing his initial inquiry slightly differently,

“What are the chances of us winning?”

I responded with my typical answer, “Better than not trying.”

With a small nod he looked down, clearly unsatisfied.  He wanted more.

“So, not good?”

I looked at the kid who was thrown into a system because of an act that was quintessentially teenager in nature.  A bb gun, a moving car, someone hit but not seriously hurt.  I looked at the shackles on his arms and legs.  Then I looked out the front door of the courthouse at that flag on the lawn.

“Yeah, not good.”

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Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth.  The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public

2 thoughts on “Steve Reba: Better Than Not Trying

  1. Hi, Len. He did have a record already. However, his prior offenses were not violent. He was fifteen at the time of this offense.

    In my view, there were absolutely alternatives to restrictive custody in this case. Community-based mental health services would have been perfect for this particular youth. He was not a threat to the community and needed direct services. This home-based approach would have not only saved this youth from the traumas of restrictive custody, it would have saved tax payers money.

  2. Hi Steve:

    Just a couple of quick questions to you first: My guess is he had a record already. Right, wrong? How old was he?

    And here is a question to you and to any of our readers: What would be an alternative approach to handling this kid who shot a BB gun and hit someone?