OP-ED: When Kids Behave Like Kids, Don’t Punish Them Like They are Adults

As a criminal defense lawyer and the mother of two girls, I have a very effective disciplinary tool at my disposal: I can take just about any undesirable interaction between my daughters and frame it as a crime.  If the older one smacks the younger one, it’s an assault. If the younger one takes her big sister’s earrings, it’s larceny. If they are both yelling and shouting at each other, it’s disorderly conduct. Over the years, I’ve been able to advise them that this behavior not only breaks the rules of our home but also violates North Carolina’s criminal statutes. As someone who defends children in juvenile delinquency court, I can also warn them that they could be criminally prosecuted and end up – as my young clients do – facing a judge and the possibility of a year of supervised probation, removal from their home, or long-term detention and commitment.

Why Obama Won: The Empathy Factor

During this election season, my young daughters posed many questions that were difficult to answer.  What’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans? Do politicians tell the truth?  How do you decide which candidate to vote for? I tried to give them meaningful answers that didn’t oversimplify the issues at stake, but after a while, I resorted to shorthand. Democrats care about the poor. Republicans care about themselves.  All politicians stretch the truth, but some do so more than others.

In the Eye of the Storm: Remembering the Most Vulnerable

As with most natural disasters, the attention of the media was initially centered on the havoc wrecked by Hurricane Sandy. We were drawn to its most dramatic images – the dangling crane at the construction site of a luxury high-rise in Midtown Manhattan; the New York City building whose façade collapsed, resembling the open side of a dollhouse; the half-submerged roller coaster, all that remained of an amusement park on the Jersey shore; the river of water running through the narrow streets of Hoboken; and the weeping mother who lost two toddlers amidst the flooding on Staten Island. We watched cable news. We texted REDCROSS to 90999.  We donated canned goods and batteries. Yet, consistent with human nature, our interest soon faded.

Juvenile Hall is Often No Place for Kids

DURHAM, N.C. — The local detention center where my juvenile clients are held while their cases are pending is called the “Youth Home.” The irony of the label is never lost on me, as the contrast between the name and the reality could hardly be starker. The rundown building is surrounded by barbed wire. Inside, kids sleep in narrow locked cells, no different from what you’d find in an adult jail. They are subjected to strip searches and attend an hour or two of “school” in a crowded room filled with a random selection of books. Juveniles are detained here for a variety of reasons.

Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles who Kill

In the 1993 book “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean tells the story of people directly impacted by capital punishment – convicted murderers counting down to their own executions, wardens and guards dutifully operating the machinery of death, and victims who are consumed by rage and grief. Prejean’s book, upon which the popular movie was based, is much more than a memoir. Well-researched and annotated, it carefully explores the legal, ethical and philosophical issues raised by the most controversial form of punishment in the United States. But the power of the book comes from its candor – from the fact that Prejean began her journey without a clear perspective or opinion on the death penalty. I read “Dead Man Walking” when it was first published. I had recently graduated from law school and was clerking for an appellate court judge. Although only vaguely interested in criminal law, I finished it quickly, engrossed by Prejean’s account of her experiences as a spiritual adviser for men on death row and moved by her struggle to find common ground with the families of victims.

I thought of this last weekend after reading Ethan Bronner’s article in The New York Times on reactions to Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. With more than 2,000 offenders across the country who may be resentenced as a result of Miller, Bronner focused on a single case – a pregnant teen killed by her 15-year-old boyfriend – and prominently featured an interview with the victim’s sister, Bobbi Jamriska, who is active in the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. Unlike Prejean’s book, but typical of most coverage of criminal sentencing, the Times article explicitly pits juveniles serving life sentences against victims’ families; it asserts without attribution that the decision in Miller threw “thousands” like Jamriska into “anguished turmoil at the prospect that the killers of their loved ones may walk the streets again.” Such hyperbole only perpetuates the notion that the ideal resolution is always to warehouse young offenders – without opportunity for review of their sentences – forever. I do respect Mr. Bronner’s work, but I don’t agree with the way he handled this piece and I told him so.