“What do you do when you travel to all these places?”
I get this question a lot because judges in the traditional sense don’t travel — they sit.
And this typically leads to the next question, generally accompanied with dull laughter: “Do you ever sit on the bench?”
“No,” I say, “I prop up a blow-up lookalike of me with mechanical arms and a voice box that says two words — ‘overrule’ and ‘sustain.’”
All joking aside, these are perfectly understandable questions to ask a judge who doesn’t seem to fit the traditional mold of judges — robe-clad people who sit high on a bench sustaining and overruling objections every day and all day.
Ugh — how boring!
It didn’t take long for me to reframe my role as a juvenile court judge.
OK — so it really wasn’t the monotonous nature of judging that was the predominant reason for my judicial self-reframing.
It was my introduction to a monotonous juvenile justice system operating more like a never-changing metallic machine, fueled by the convenience of its operators, that reframed my judicial self.
I think Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal summed it up best when he referred to me once as a “revolutionary jurist.”
But I must confess there are plenty of judges out there who fit this “revolutionary jurist” tag. You may not necessarily know them, though.
The common thread that runs through these revolutionary jurists is their collaborative work off the bench to prevent vulnerable kids from entering the front door of our court system. The more we champion community services collaborating to achieve prevention, the fewer cases we see when sitting on the bench.
We are a different breed because the subject of our legal jurisprudence involves a very unique and vulnerable population — children. At the core of our legal obligation is the protection of children, and this doesn’t begin at our front door — it must begin in the community.
What I see in my courtroom is a microcosm of the community, and what I saw when I took the bench was a bunkerlike system waiting for referrals and seldom engaging the surrounding community.
After a short time sitting on the bench, I recognized a paradox in our bunker approach: Regardless of how much we tried to insulate ourselves, the courtroom was the one place that all stakeholders gathered at one time over a single child — schools, mental health, social services and probation.
A bunker on one hand, but an intersection of providers on the other.
I have sat on the bench and looked down on the sea of silos and watched in dismay the argument over who will be responsible for the kid. The thought that they’re all responsible never enters their mind.
In all fairness to those standing before me, they’re mimicking the rules of their respective agencies — and the rules are different. They may share the child, but their respective rules dictate how much sharing, if any, is permitted.
Our system of bureaucracy, despite its many advantages, is not inclined toward cooperation. Rather, it’s a systemic culture of centeredness that renders the juvenile justice system a nonsystem.
The solution is in the problem. The solution was in the paradox we had created. Despite our fortress approach, stakeholders were forced to intersect in my courtroom. If the juvenile court is the intersection of the juvenile justice system, that would make the judge the traffic cop.
My frustration led me to the revolutionary concept that I am only as good on the bench as what I do off the bench — champion collaboration.
The JDAI Model, which puts collaboration at the foundation of its eight core strategies, gave me practical help. This led us to creating a school-justice partnership to combat zero tolerance policies: As school arrests increased over 2,000 percent, our graduation rates had plummeted to 58 percent since those policies began.
How goes graduation, so goes crime — and so our juvenile arrests skyrocketed.
Reversing this trend required a revolutionary response — a collaborative agreement to reduce school arrests replaced with smarter alternatives.
The trend showed signs of reversing within six months, as arrests declined by 54 percent. As of this year, arrests decreased 83 percent compared with the year we started, in 2004.
As arrests fell, the graduation rates steadily increased to more than 24 percent over the 2004 rate. Keeping kids in school and out of court does increase graduation rates, and we found that the more we graduated, the fewer juvenile crimes — now down more than 62 percent compared with 2004.
This is not by happenstance. It is by design, and people want to know how.
Knowing that hindsight is always 20/20, we asked ourselves, “If we could go back, knowing what we know today, what tools would’ve been helpful to hasten the school-justice partnership?”
We then developed a school-justice partnership toolkit that helps communities develop their own unique partnership agreement. What took us nine months, today takes two days for other communities.
JDAI inspired us to improve our quality of life, and now they ask in return that we help others do the same.
Yes, I sit on the bench and hear all my adjudications, dispositions and everything in between and thereafter. I even have time to sit almost every week as a designated superior court judge with adult jurisdiction.
With 62 percent fewer cases, I have more time to champion a collaborative system that focuses on prevention, not detention.
It also gives me time to pay it forward.
What a revolutionary idea!
Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.
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