OP-ED: Juvenile Courts Are Losing Opportunities to Create Better Futures

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I recently learned of two traumatic events — both are connected to juvenile court but not to each other. I share both as further evidence of the need for best practices to take hold in our juvenile system.

Because I do not have first-hand information and because there may be additional developments in each case, I will not disclose identifying information.

The first was the suicide of a child held in a temporary detention center. Not yet a teenager, the boy had been in trouble for some time. This wasn’t his first stay in the detention center. Even though the detention facility is modern and run by an experienced and well-trained staff, the child committed suicide in his cell.

The investigation and soul-searching by all those connected with him will go on for years. That will include a search for answers to why a child so young was sent to a detention center and what alternatives might have been available.

The second jarring event occurred in a sentencing hearing for a 15-year-old boy who had been involved with delinquency court on several occasions.

Mulitsystemic therapy (MST) services had just become an option in the county and were off to a good start. This youth was screened for MST services and was accepted. After reviewing the probation department’s reports and the minor’s apology letter, the judge ignored the recommendation of services delivered in the community and sentenced the youth to juvenile prison. To make matters worse, the judge told him that his siblings, parents and other family members were well known to the court and that he — like them — was destined to be a failure and burden to the community.

The boy’s hopes to break free from the cycle of intergenerational justice system involvement were dashed, and the trauma of prison was created in that moment. The judge’s decision and statutory finding that prison was the least restrictive alternative for him may well find its way to a higher court, but we must wonder what damage was done by the judge as well as what damage may be done in state prison.

This outcome isn’t inevitable. The research and training opportunities for all juvenile court practitioners have helped spread the word of better practices, which not only avoid the devastation caused by unnecessary incarceration but also offer more effective approaches that improve the well-being of youth, crime victims and communities.

In the courtroom, we have tools, like the  Washington State Juvenile Court Colloquies, developed through the Models for Change program, to foster respect and better communication with youth and families regardless of the final decision.

In this case though, it appears that the disrespect for the youth’s feelings about himself and his family were ignored in favor of a rant that apparently had its roots in facts completely outside his case.

All judges become frustrated with people and cases, and all judges occasionally lose their temper. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest courts in all states and many bar associations were called to action to restore or create civility in the court. A rash of abusive trial practices and courtroom behavior led to a widespread call for reform. Unfortunately, that effort did not result in behavior change for this judge.

I do not make direct comparisons of the outcomes in the two cases mentioned here. The tragedy of the death of a child by suicide is impossible to explain or understand with words.

Rather, I draw attention to the lost opportunities for the juvenile court, its collaborating agencies and organizations to create positive outcomes for those children who come before us. We have treatment alternatives and screening procedures that are proven effective by real world evidence.  We have research that shows incarceration is a traumatic experience. We know that children’s brain development affects their ability to act in ways that are socially appropriate. From these cases, we have evidence that we have to be vigilant for danger to children in custody by order of our courts.

And we have evidence that we still have work to do.

Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., has served as chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission since January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before his 2006 retirement as chief judge of Illinois’ 2nd Circuit. He is also a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a statewide advocacy coalition.

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