An Interview with Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Phillip Jackson

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Honorable Judge Phillip Jackson. Photos copyright C. Releford

Associate Judge Jackson sat down with Martha Turner of the Juvenile Justice Fund recently to talk about CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children), adoption and the rehabilitative efforts of the court. Jackson is a graduate of Georgia State University’s Law School. He has been on the bench since June, 2009.

Judge Jackson, you are a native Atlantan, and you’ve been in the courts here for many years –

“Twenty years.”

In that time, in 20 years, do you think the legal system has gotten better or worse?

“In some ways it’s gotten better, and in some ways it’s gotten worse. It’s gotten better from the standpoint that we know more about the law and automation and computers have helped a great deal. It used to be that you had all these file rooms, and you had case files and mimeograph machines, and it took awhile to find something.

“The law is about paper; you have to follow due process. But since we have computers, when things are scanned in, what you used to do in days, you can do in minutes. You can find something. You can give somebody a certified copy. You can pull up histories. So with that, it’s great. We understand more, and we can bring in experts – doctors and so forth. Especially in Juvenile, in deciding what needs to be done to help families, it’s so much better.

“One way that it’s bad is that there’s more of a need. We have more cases now, and we have fewer resources. We don’t have enough money for judges, parent’s attorneys and children’s attorneys. We don’t have enough beds in hospitals, much less detention centers, and that’s the sad thing because if we had more resources, some of these cases would go away.

“Another thing is that people in our generation always talk about immediate gratification. So if someone comes into court, and the judge says this or that, then boom—there’s this expectation that the family is healed, the child is healed –“

Yes, tune in next week for the next episode–

“Yes, you know problems like that — they don’t heal overnight, and if somebody needs counseling or treatment, you’re sometimes talking about months. You’re not talking about days. That hasn’t changed, but expectations have changed, and people want it to be that way—instantaneous.

“Another part of it is education and exposure. It used to be, to get things done, you would go back in a room and work it out, and all the public would really know is that it worked. But now you have this transparency, and you have media transparency, where people will say ‘Oh no, that will never work.’ But we don’t give things time to work.”

We have so much information now, but we don’t really have the knowledge of how things really do work?

“Right, and that’s where education comes in. There’s nothing wrong with transparency, and there’s nothing wrong with people knowing. We need to educate people so they know what all the components are, as opposed to just giving them the outcome.

“Everybody wants somebody punished, but nobody wants an innocent person to be convicted. Yet in public perception, if they see somebody charged, they’ll leap to the conclusion that they must have done it, but sometimes that’s not the case.”

How many cases that you handle involve CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children)?

“Well, you never really know, because things happen right in front of us, but we don’t see it, like the phrase ‘hidden in plain view.’ But for the cases that we do know about, I would say it’s not uncommon.”

Are there a mix of boys and girls, or are most of them girls?

“Most of them have been girls. But the problem is that the support system is set up for girls. Being in Atlanta, we’ve had runaway cases that were males and they were being exploited, but there are no resources for them. There are no counselors to go in and speak to them, and all of the publicity is on the girls. I’m not mad with that; I’m glad because it needs to be there, but I wish we had something for the males.”

That’s an interesting point, that the males need more attention.

“Yes, because Atlanta is a metropolis. You’ve been here all your life too Martha, and you know kids come here from all over, and they’re exploited. Certain parts of Atlanta are known more for exploiting males more than females. I don’t know if it’s a thing that people just don’t want to address, and don’t feel comfortable talking about – but it’s the same thing as talking about molesting a young girl. You sometimes feel more comfortable about talking about an exploited girl.

“There need to be more resources for the girls. There are hardly any for boys, but we need more for young girls. Especially in our society, once somebody like that is exploited, it’s hard to recover.

“You think about Elizabeth Smart: she is intelligent, she seems to be recovered, but I think she’s an exception. You read so many stories about young girls, and you will see it in Juvenile Court. Well nobody has reported it, and they wind up being exploited later, or deprived because they weren’t treated. They might have been molested or exploited, and then they grow up and either continue to be molested, or have problems getting along with people and forming relationships. Or they turn it around and start molesting others, even before they become an adult.

“With all of that focus and energy they could have been a doctor, they could have found a treatment for cancer, they could have been an actress, they could have been a musician, an architect, a teacher. They could have been whatever they wanted to be, but because they were re-routed at this part of their life, the potential is just lost. It’s just lost.”

Is it hard to see these cases day after day? Do you feel discouraged?

“No. Or only for a second. Because I also look out to the rest of society, and I think about the good I see. If you think about what you lost, you’re going to get depressed; but if you can balance that out by thinking about what you saved, or what you could save, it gives you something to work towards.”

If you could change anything in the legal system right this minute, what would it be?

“Well, funding is really the major thing. You can’t really do anything without the funding. How many beds do we have in safe houses? How many children are turned out of mental health institutions because they don’t have enough beds, and the child has been there the maximum allowed time? How many hours can a psychologist see a child? And how many children can a psychologist see? Or social workers?

“In order to change something, you’ve got to have the instrument to make the change. With the proper funding, we could get so much more done, because we know what we need to do—but lacking the funding to implement the programs is harmful.”

Do you feel as a judge that you have enough opportunities to offer help to the children who come before you, and to redirect them?

“That’s all rehabilitation is. You try to seek the best outcome, but sometimes you’re limited, and you don’t have that much.”

How does the media affect your job?

“You have to do your job with due process, and handle every case as if it were on TV, because all cases can be compared to each other, and you want the hundred cases that weren’t on TV to be handled consistently with the one case that was on TV. However, with Juvenile Court, it’s not in the child’s best interest to have media coverage, because children are just children.

“Often it’s the adults around them that cause their bad situation. If you put that in the media, how can the child heal? Other children who hear about it are going to be picking at them, not to mention how adults will judge them. It’s hard enough for the child to understand what is happening, but too hard for other children to understand it. Once you put a case on the news and out into the community, that child is labeled.

“Earlier you mentioned girls who are sexually exploited. Suppose that hits the news? Everyone will say “that child is wild, that child is ruined, and so on.” Fortunately in Juvenile Court we keep things in a more private record, whereas in adult court everything is public.

“At Juvenile Court, we’re all about rehabilitation. The child needs to heal, and doesn’t need everyone in their business.”

You’ve articulated a broad view of serving the children, and all the different services that come into play to get the child out of court, and turned around. What could JJF do to work better in concert with you as a judge?

“Well, I wouldn’t limit you. Raising money and educating are key, because the more people who understand why we do things, and how we do things, the better. Just keep going out and advocating for the children. We need more money for counseling and for shelters.

“Now I will say that doing the right thing also means doing what is in the best interest of the community. If a child is going out and doing harm to the community, or to himself, or herself, then we have to separate that child from the community for everyone’s sake.

“We can’t let a child run wild, and let the community suffer for it, or let the child suffer for it.”

How important is social awareness and social perspective about the plight of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) victims?

“It’s very important. If you are aware of the cause and effect of certain things, you can eliminate it. People are aware of mental health issues. Sometimes patients can’t afford treatment, and society, not recognizing their illness will treat them like they’re ‘normal.’

“Spanking someone is not going to cure them of a behavioral disorder. Locking them up isn’t going to cure them. Sometimes it takes counseling, it takes medication. Who knows what it can take. So education is important.

“Understanding the system is also important. For CSEC (the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children), if you understand why people abuse children, and how children get into the position of being abused, then you can find ways to prevent it.

“Sometimes people think it’s the child’s fault, or they blame themselves out of ignorance. But with education they may start to ask themselves, ‘Maybe I should go upstairs and find out what my child is watching on the internet, and maybe I should make sure my child gets enough sleep, and maybe I should go down to the school and find out what my child is doing there, maybe I should make sure my child goes to the doctor every so often. Maybe if I’m going to deal in certain activities, my child doesn’t need to see this, or my child doesn’t need to be exposed to this.’”

Do you think we’re too quick to label children as “bad” based on apparent behaviors?

“Well it’s always been that way—that we label a child bad without really understanding what’s going on with them. You know, when I was coming up, you could go to the field and play ball, you could be in the band, you could be in the chorus, you could take art. You could play football, you could play softball or basketball. And unfortunately now with limited resources, not all kids can do that. You don’t have recreational centers the way you used to. Almost everyone was in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and there were positive and fun things you could do to fill the time.

“Plus, there was time. There was time for the parents to engage the children. Kids were getting a lot more positive feedback, but now things are so busy, and people are having to work to survive—having to work two jobs, and there’s all of this extra pressure.”

And kids are fending more for themselves.

“Right. And some kids need more nurturing than others. They need a little bit more encouragement. Some kids are going to be a success no matter what. No matter what they try, they’re going to be good at it. But other kids, they’re only going to be good at one thing maybe. If no one ever exposes them to enough things so they can find that thing they’re good at, what then?

“So that gets back to resources again, and we have to make sure the safety nets are in place. If you cut one thing off, it will affect the next thing and the next. If you cut one thing in the legal system, it’s going to be felt somewhere else. It’s all connected.”

You’ve clearly given much thought to what the children in your court and in the greater society need. When you’re not pondering these issues, how do you like to spend your time?

“I love movies. I like science fiction, I like action movies. It’s very relaxing. I like cards – pinochle. I like chess – you know, if it takes my mind off of work, then I like to do it.

“You talked about people getting depressed doing this job—you can’t just look at the people who have trouble. The nice thing is that in my community, in my church, in my family, I see a lot of kids who don’t get into trouble. And that’s the picture you have to hold—the picture of how it can be, and that this can be the future.

“If the only thing you see is your work and the people who have troubles and have problems, it’s easy to get down. But when you can go out in the world and see all the kids who don’t get into trouble, and go to college, it brings the balance back, and you see the rest of the picture.”

What’s the best part about your job?

“That I can make a difference. That I have the opportunity to do something good that matters.”

What’s the worst part?

“Not being able to fix everything. You know, seeing something and not being able to make it better—the ones you can’t save. But then again, you save as many as you can.”

*Photos copyright C. Releford

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