The Juvenile Justice System Is Not a Hammer and Kids Are Not Nails

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Johnny was arraigned for probation violation. He is 15 and of small stature. He was originally placed on probation for residential burglary — the party to a crime kind where misery likes company. His violations were technical — not a new crime. He is simply not complying with the rules of probation — specifically curfew, marijuana and failing to follow directions at the evening reporting center — our afterschool program designed to break-up the anti-social peer network.

It’s important to know this is not Johnny’s first act of defiance on probation. Our court has a well-oiled graduated response system in place that since it’s inception has reduced the filings of violations by over 80 percent by giving probation officers tools to quickly respond to technical violations. Without a response system the probation officer is likely to use the judge as a default and that can be problematic.

Bringing out the judge is like using a hammer to kill a fly — the hammer may be powerful, but it’s too heavy to hit its mark.

It also assumes that the kid always requires the hammer. A heavy-handed default system will make the kid worse — it’s like performing a lobotomy to cure a migraine.

It also doesn’t make sense to place a judge in the position of directing a probation officer to take action that he or she could have done in the first place. So the kid starts to think — “Really, you (probation officer) filed all this paperwork and brought me to court only to have the judge tell me to do something you could have directed — and much sooner!”

Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Not every violation is a nail — and not every kid should be pounded. Improper use of tools — like a hammer — causes injury and likely makes the kid worse.

Johnny is a case in point. In all fairness to the probation officer, she employed several graduated responses that would improve Johnny’s behavior for a short period and soon thereafter would relapse. This time she brought the matter before me saying that all graduated responses have been exhausted and requested weekend detention as a consequence.

When I inquired with the mother, probation officer, prosecutor, and even defense counsel their opinion why Johnny is non-responsive, the answer was quick and simple — he needs a greater punisher to get his attention. Now bear in mind as they were talking to me, I was culling through his file, which is over three inches thick — mostly petitions and orders involving parental neglect. I saw where this was going and I asked my bailiff to accompany Johnny outside the courtroom with his attorney’s permission. He didn’t need to hear what I was about to say about his mother.

When they finished exposing their united opinion that Johnny has a bad disposition toward authority, I asked them if they had read the first petition filed in this court — and they had not.

He was 19 months old when the first petition was filed. There was a pregnant pause followed by a slow turn of their heads looking at each other with a “where is this going?” type of look. The allegations in the petition, later proven true, described mom’s drug addiction and constant trips to drug houses for quick fixes. She was not alone — she brought Johnny.

Johnny was taken from his mom, was raised by his grandparents with mom in and out of his life until finally she got sober — and stayed sober — but the damage was done.

Research is clear that children who experience maltreatment before age 12 are more likely to engage in delinquent acts during adolescence. Children — like Johnny — victimized by those they trust are at risk to enter adolescence resorting to “survival coping” behaviors that come across to the rest of us as callous and defiant but are self-protective in a world they perceive themselves as alone and powerless.

I will confess – -I didn’t know exactly what to do with Johnny at that moment. I knew he needed a consequence — but locking him up for the weekend was not the answer — not even as a punisher. Here’s the rub: Johnny does know the difference between right and wrong. His survival coping behaviors translate into a defiant attitude because he doesn’t trust adults and he is angry. The irony is that he wants to right the wrongs against him — he wants justice!

As long as he is non-violent, jail is an inappropriate tool to modify behavior, especially since he is a trauma victim. I am the fool to think that bringing out the hammer and pounding on Johnny will change an attitude that is grounded in his head like a tattoo on an arm. Like removing a tattoo, Johnny’s cognition won’t change without some pain — and I mean on our part too.

It’s time to get tough — and I mean on ourselves as practitioners. The Johnnys in our system need our patience and our skill to discern the right from the wrong when it comes to effective interventions.

Johnny wants to feel safe in this world. Our job is to take his hand and guide him to that safe place.

A painful reminder — Johnny will trip and fall several times and we will go down with him — if we are holding his hand. Just keep holding his hand — he never had that growing up.

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