Finding the Time to Make Real Change in Juvenile Justice

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It is a fundamental principle in effective supervision of juvenile offenders that the optimal caseload size should be 25. It is still common throughout the country to find caseloads exceeding 60 and sometimes more than 100.

When I took the bench in 1999, our caseload size was 150 – it was not pretty! Today, it’s 25. The kids who scare us get intensive supervision, the kids who make us mad are referred to a system of care for services.

The commission of a delinquent act doesn’t always mean the kid is delinquent. Many of us can recall our own youthful indiscretions.

The studies declare that overreacting to low-risk youth will likely have unintended consequences, such as making them delinquent. Telling a low-risk kid he’s delinquent and requiring probation can have a debilitating effect on the psyche – it’s the labeling theory working at its best. If you’re told you’re bad, you will become bad.

Other unintended consequences include the watering down of supervision for high-risk youth who need it the most. Again, studies are clear that community protection demands intensive supervision of high-risk youth to reduce the risk of re-offending. The more time devoted to the kids who make us mad will translate into less time to a kid who scares us.

We must be smart in how we treat our kids and not be fooled that probation or jail is the cure-all. The “get tough on crime” rhetoric is a great sound byte, but how to “get tough” is what separates some politicians from the practitioner. The sound byte may get votes, but it doesn’t always reduce crime.

The more low-risk cases that enter the front gates of our juvenile justice systems, the more difficult it becomes for other players in the system to perform at optimal capacity. Many years ago, after a school fight case, I asked the prosecutor if he thought such cases were worthy of his prosecutorial efforts. He replied “No–most of these kids don’t belong on probation.” He added, “I could use more time to prepare for the difficult cases–the kids who do scare me!”

It then dawned on me – the domino effect. What affects the prosecutor, affects the probation officer and ultimately me, the judge.

My effectiveness is compromised when cases unworthy of court intervention keep me from work in the community and activities that promote the administration of juvenile justice. People often inquire how I am able to write, lecture, provide technical assistance to others and attend community functions and keep up with my court docket? It’s quite simple – we have far fewer cases today than when I took the bench in 1999 – 63 percent to be exact.

Many years ago, we changed the way we do business implementing best practices such as Annie E. Casey Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) strategies and the Model Guidelines for Delinquency Courts produced by the National Council of Juvenile & Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). We introduced risk instruments to help us know who can be diverted and who needs to be targeted for intensive supervision. Needs assessment tools were also created to determine the most effective programs to ameliorate those criminal tendencies identified in each high-risk kid. We implemented graduated sanctions to swiftly respond to probation violators. Most important of all, we brought the community of stakeholders to the table to create a system of care to get services to the kids who are low risk in need of services – those that make us mad and are diverted.

It’s a systemic paradox – on one hand probation officers, prosecutors, defenders, and judges require more time to be effective, but on the other are trapped in a fortress called the office or courtroom mostly to keep up with kids who have made some adult mad, usually a school administrator or parent! It’s difficult to find the time to be effective in a system that is lacking diligent gate-keeping mechanisms.

To the prosecutor it translates into more time needed to prosecute the serious cases. To the probation officer, it translates into fewer low-risk kids to spend more time supervising the kids who scare us. To the judge, it translates into more time to get involved in the community to sustain an effective system of care and to improve the administration of juvenile justice altogether.

The American Bar Association’s Model Canons of Judicial Ethics encourage judges to “engage in extrajudicial activities that concern the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, such as speaking, writing, teaching, or participating in scholarly research projects.” The Model Canons further encourage judges to “share their expertise with legislative governmental bodies and executive or legislative branch officials.” Judges are allowed to “accept appointments to entities that concern the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice.”

Of course, the Canons also include an operational phrase – “when time permits.” Several years ago I did not have the time for extrajudicial activities that today integrate me into the community and allow me to try and promote the administration of juvenile justice. Today, we are able to help other communities change their juvenile justice systems so they too will have more time to be effective – and in turn, they too will be able to pass it on!

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