Juvenile court proceedings are closed to the public for good reason. As a matter of policy, we want to safeguard the privacy of young people charged with delinquent offenses. By making proceedings confidential and sealing juvenile court records, we enable young people who come into contact with the justice system to pursue future education and employment opportunities without the specter of their youthful indiscretions following them. Further, juvenile court matters often include personal information, not only about the young person charged, but also about their family and its circumstances.
Despite these valid considerations, the opaque nature of juvenile court proceedings has become a double-edged sword. Without the scrutiny of the public, juvenile courts lose a critical measure of accountability. Unlike adult court proceedings, which any citizen can attend, in a juvenile courtroom only “interested parties” are allowed to attend. This typically includes the judge and court personnel, attorneys for the state and the child, family members and victims. Depending on the stage and nature of the proceeding, other parties might include probation officers, mental health professionals or those with relevant information to the case.
As a result, young people and their families often find the court process intimidating and complicated — populated mainly by people who they perceive to have interests adverse to their own. Families operating within this framework often lack the knowledge and formal mechanisms to address this imbalance of power and to seek alternative and less punitive resolutions. And the outcomes are stark. Pennsylvania, for instance, has sentenced more youth to mandatory sentences of juvenile life without parole than any other state.
A relatively new practice, called participatory defense, offers an intriguing new approach to making juvenile court processes more open and accessible for families and communities and to improving outcomes for youth.
Participatory defense aims to transform justice procedures by enabling families and community members to engage in the defense process on behalf of their loved ones. Individuals who know the defendant provide the court with comprehensive biographical details, or “social biographies,” which offer a fuller picture of the defendant’s background, future prospects and impact on the community. Through the model, families and communities also assist defense counsel in case preparation and have a more visible presence in the court process.
This practice was developed by Raj Jayadev — recently awarded a Stoneleigh Fellowship — and his colleagues at San Jose, California-based nonprofit Silicon Valley De-Bug after they witnessed how under-representation of a defendant can result in harsher sentences.
Practice geared to 3 outcomes
Participatory defense does not advocate for a public airing of juvenile court proceedings, since the privacy of those matters serves a valid public policy interest. Rather, it provides a methodology and guidelines to the fairly new notion that by engaging the families and communities of justice-involved youth, we can achieve better outcomes for everyone.
The goal of participatory defense, which is currently in 11 communities, is to mitigate, or even eliminate, a sentence, as measured by the amount of “time saved” — a counterpoint to the legal term “time served.” Though not limited to juvenile court proceedings, participatory defense is particularly well-suited to produce three highly desirable outcomes in juvenile justice:
- It allows for individualized decision-making:
Families and communities, unsure of how or if they can engage the court system, are often passive witnesses to processes that may separate them from their loved ones. If they wish to present the court with mitigating or humanizing information that could have an impact on sentencing, they have very few mechanisms for achieving that goal. In particular, young people often have their own voice minimized due to their age. And by extension, the traditional amplifiers of their voices, their families and communities, are also excluded from playing a central role in determining their fates. Through social biographies presented in court, and information-sharing with defense counsel before court proceedings, families and community members can ensure that the court sees a picture of the whole child, not just what is presented to them through the lens of their offense.
- It is consistent with the original goals of the juvenile court:
Juvenile court was never meant to serve a purely punitive function. During the 1990s when a more punitive approach was being applied to criminal justice, juvenile justice also saw a rash of changes, most of them tending to emphasize punishment and retribution, and de-emphasize rehabilitation and reconciliation between the offender and society. Participatory defense helps to refocus on and restore the original function of juvenile court.
- It is developmentally appropriate and leads to more balanced outcomes:
We now know from adolescent brain science that oversupervising and overpunishing young people leads to poor outcomes. Participatory defense provides the juvenile judge, the victims and the broader community with more robust explanations (not excuses) for a young person’s offense. It further allows for victims and the community to consider restorative, rather than purely retributive, solutions — an approach that has been proven to lower the likelihood of reoffending as well as improve victim satisfaction with justice procedures.
Participatory defense is one promising approach that has the potential, not only to open up the juvenile court process to those who have the most at stake, but also to improve outcomes for youth and the community at large.
Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.