Near Retirement, Top Judge of Nation’s Largest Juvenile Court Still Working for Kids

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LOS ANGELES — The man who has presided over the largest juvenile court system in the nation for 20 years will leave behind major advances in treating so-called crossover youths. He leaves with his trademark blaze of silver hair, relaxed attitude and easy humor intact.

“Even though my days are numbered, I will be pushing to the end to make sure that we’ve completely covered the landscape with appropriate protocols on how to deal with these kids,” Judge Michael Nash, 66, said. He retires in January.

Such children are in both the child welfare or dependency courts and the juvenile justice courts. Many were formerly in the foster care system.

JJIE Los Angeles Bureau“What will be part of Judge Nash’s legacy is really the work that he did with crossover youth,” said Cyn Yamashiro, former executive director at Center for Juvenile Law and Policy in Los Angeles. “Kids who are in the dependency system are there because they have been victims of abuse and the system is designed to treat them like they are victims — which obviously they are.

“But if they go out and they commit a crime, then that isn’t the case anymore. Prior to the work Judge Nash did, they were treated as suspects and defendants as opposed to victims simply because they committed a potentially minor crime.”

One of the solutions Nash proposed was collaboration in getting crossover youths the treatment they needed to stay out of the court system later in life. He  asserted the courts have a large role to play in how these youths develop. Their success can depend on judicial actions as simple as identifying those who qualify as crossovers early in the process, assigning those cases to only one judge, and monitoring those cases and their court-mandated programs even after court proceedings end.

“I promised when I took this job that I would help to improve the communication, cooperation and coordination amongst the various stakeholders and I think that I’ve accomplished that,” Nash said. “Even now, sometimes we cooperate and communicate with each other better than others but, by and large, we have a much more collaborative system than at least when I took over. And basically everything that we’ve done over the last 20 years has been a result of that collaboration.”

Nash is the presiding judge of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court.

While very proud of his work, he does see challenges.

“There are challenges when you have 43 courts trying to work with each other — trying to implement this protocol in a consistent way,” Nash said. “The most significant challenge that we still have is the appropriate provision of services to youths so that we either can prevent a youth who is on the verge of crossing over from doing so, or aiding more when kids do in fact cross over to limit their time in the system so that kids don’t stay wards of the delinquency court.”

The judge set to replace Nash is Michael Levanas, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge. Levanas has been a judge since his 2005 appointment by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Judge Levanas will have his work cut out for him, and he does have big shoes to fill,”  said Carol Chodroff, a Los Angeles-based attorney and juvenile justice advocate. “But we’re all excited that he is coming in and will be addressing so many issues that remain.”

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