Judge Steven Teske On the Two Faces of Juvenile Justice

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During my 12 years on the bench, a few of my law enforcement friends have asked me why I take — in their perspective — a “soft” approach with kids coming before me.

“Judge, you don’t see them on the streets when we deal with them,” they say.  “You see them in court with a smile and looking good.”

The question of my apparent naive approach to kids is valid — from their perspective of course.

For example, I recall this one kid four years ago. He was 15 years old and his name was Kenny. He personified the kids my friends described — angry, disrespectful, and defiant.

Imagine dealing with many Kennys every day? It is frustrating for police. I understand their criticism of my decisions. They serve on the front-end of the criminal justice system. They place their lives on the line every day.

Take for instance the kid who runs from a stolen car, the police give chase, and upon catching up he resists and has to be wrestled to the ground. They both get scrapes and maybe torn clothes. Despite his admission to fleeing from and resisting the officer, the kid complains of police brutality.

I use to be one of those officers on the ground. I assure you, there is no failsafe method of cuffing a resisting person without getting scrapes, maybe some cuts, bruises and torn clothing. In fact, when you hit the ground it’s a free-for-all and the training goes out the door. You do whatever it will take to get home that evening to your family — even if it means scraping, cutting, bruising and tearing clothes. There is a saying among peace officers: “I rather be tried by 12 of my peers than carried by 6 of my friends.”

Kenny was one of those kids who resisted police. In fact, he hit an officer three times in the face with a clenched fist. He assaulted his mother and threw furniture into a wall causing substantial damage. Kenny received numerous cuts and bruises in the struggle to cuff him. He admitted to attacking the officer and to fighting the officer during the arrest. Despite all this, he was indignant that he had cuts, scrapes and bruises.

Kenny was detained. His mother was scared of him. This was not the first time. He was violent at school too.

During the hearing, Kenny was articulate and showed remorse for his conduct.  It was difficult to believe that this same young man did these horrific things. Kenny, like many troubled youth, lives a Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde paradox — an angel in the courtroom but a demon outside.

I released him for a psychological evaluation. It just didn’t make sense how a smart young man could be so violent.

The officer seemed unpleased. Unfortunately, this juncture in the system is where the misunderstandings begin.  I call this the “Hand-off.” The police make arrests when kids break the law. They are handed over to me. I must figure out what to do.  The police return to the streets to protect us. They don’t hear the rest of the story. They don’t see it from my perspective!

When Kenny was returned to court after the evaluation, it was discovered that since age seven he had witnessed his father beat his mother on a daily basis.  Kenny would try to save his mother on occasion, only to have his father turn on him. Kenny became angry and abusive, just like his father.

The boy needed intensive services. The psychologist recommended individual counseling as well as family therapy for both Kenny and his mother. That is what I ordered. And so I returned him home to begin his journey. That was four years ago.

Last week, I was sitting on the bench listening to an argument that the records of a 19-year-old be sealed. The prosecutor stated that he had completed probation two years ago with no arrests since, now attends college, is on the Dean’s list and is employed to help pay his tuition. His mother was present.  She was proud of her son. Before sealing his record, I read aloud from an order I wrote in 2007, “He is very articulate and speaks with intelligence; has a lot of potential.”

The young man in the courtroom began crying. His mother cried too.

“Thank you Judge Teske,” he said. “Thank you for giving me a chance.”

His name is Kenny — the same Kenny who attacked police and his mother.

Toughness on juvenile crime is a matter of perspective depending on the role we play. The police find the lawbreakers and the courts try to rehabilitate.

Together they are the two faces of juvenile justice — one speaks for the entrance-the other for the exit.  They face each other only in the middle — the courtroom –for the “hand-off.”

Like Kenny, many kids do change after the hand-off. It’s just that those who hand them off don’t always see the change.




7 thoughts on “Judge Steven Teske On the Two Faces of Juvenile Justice

  1. Excellent seeking justice with compassion. I totally agree let’s get to the root of the problem. Judge Steve Teske keep up the good work. Your friend India Smith

  2. I am very proud that you serve on our Department of Juvenile Justice Board of Education and the DJJ Board.

    Martha Patton
    Curriculum Director
    Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice

  3. Wow….I must say I am glad to see the responses to this column. It has certainly struck a chord. Thank you for the comments. I agree with Didacticus that harsher responses increases the risk of more serious criminality, rspecially during adolescence. Dana says the same. As for police corruption, I experienced as a parole officer…almost went to jail for it…Dave, you gave me an idea for a story. But know this….most police are great people. Note in my story I used the word few, and even those I think of are not corrupt….just lacking the rest of the story. I am very blesed in Clayton county with great police. They care about our kids. Nonetheless Dave…be looking for that one story……its an exception, but like any bad apple, it will ruin the bushel.

  4. I am glad to hear of a judge that seeks justice with compassion. We need more like The Honorable Judge Teske. Too often, justice is nothing more than a strict application of law with no regard to the persons affected, defendants and victims both.

    I would like to hear Judge Teske’s views on police corruption, I would expect that he would have a unique and appropriate point to make.

  5. The problem with harsh punishments is that kids often react by getting angry and worse, especially when they also get influenced by more hardened cases in juvenile jails.

    Had Kenny been dealt with harshly in a way that ignored the abuse he experienced throughout his childhood, chances are he may have turned much worse and we could have had a kid up on murder charges by now…

    • This story really touched me. It is an excellent example of what ‘shoud’ be done with these kids, as opposed to what is done. Kenny had a story, and had he not been able to tell it; his life would have most likely gone in an entirely different direction. Kudos to this judge in recognizing the help this boy needed, and then offering it to him.

      • This story speaks a lot of truth. These kids are crying out and thank goodness Judge Teske was there, he knew deep down in his heart that this yongster could be saved.