To Keep Kids Out of the System, We Need Community Involvement

Most of the teenagers walking into my courtroom were 1st or 2nd time visitors.  They didn’t want to return, and we worked with them and their parents to make that first visit their last one. However, some kids need more support and intervention to change their life trajectories from negative to positive. After seeing the same teens in court year after year, judges wonder what it will take to change the behaviors that keep bringing them back into court. Short of sending a youth off to a state prison, the options usually available to juvenile court judges include stern lectures and warnings, mandated community service, assessment and rehabilitative services, and electronic monitoring. Sometimes judges reach a point where everything has been tried at least once, and yet the youth is again back in court with a new offense.  When that happens, will the judge leave the youth with his or her family and try for rehabilitation again?

For the Newly-Elected Judge, a Different View of Juvenile Court

Dozens of lawyers won their first elections as judges this month, and they will soon experience the sensation of viewing the courtroom from the other side of the bench and hearing the words “your honor” directed at them. In about half the states, including my home state of Illinois, voters elect some or all trial court judges, sometimes after rough-and-tumble campaigns making them household names. These new judges may not have given it much thought, but many of them will begin their judicial service largely out of the public view. They’re not going to preside over headline-grabbing murder trials or referee disputes involving multi-million dollar lawsuits. Many of the judges-elect, instead, will preside over juvenile court, the one courtroom in most jurisdictions where the public and press are not welcome and a good number of the accused aren’t old enough to shave.

Juveniles Not Entitled to Legal, Parental Counsel Prior to Police Investigations, Ohio Supreme Court Rules

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state’s laws do not entitle juveniles the right to an attorney during interrogations that occur before charges are formally filed, or prior to an initial appearance in Ohio’s juvenile courts. The decision stems from a case involving a juvenile, caught driving without a valid license, when he was initially stopped by a Cleveland-area police officer. Later, the teen signed a Miranda Rights waiver and a statement admitting he was involved in a robbery. The teen’s defense team said that his statement should not have been admitted into evidence, as police did not provide him with a lawyer. A portion of Ohio state law requires minors in delinquency cases to have legal counsel “at all stages of proceedings.” Ohio’s high court, in a 4-3 ruling, determined that “proceedings” does not entail investigator actions.

JJIE Presents: The Juvenile Justice Documentary Project, in Partnership with Calamari Productions

Aaron, 18 years old and dressed in an oversized, light grey sweatshirt, sits blankly across from Intake Officer Clayton in an Indiana detention center while she asks him questions, his face betraying little emotion and his voice barely above a whisper. “I can’t hear you,” Clayton says, and Aaron repeats his answer, just loud enough for her to hear. As Clayton tells Aaron of an impending charge, shock flickers across his otherwise still face – this was the first he’d heard anything about it. Scenes such as this are common in the work of Calamari Productions. In an effort to continue bringing innovative, accurate insights on juvenile justice, The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has formed a partnership with this award-winning production.

Georgia Appeals Court Rejects Check-Box Juvenile Court Order

An order by a Juvenile Court judge on a pre-printed form made by checking boxes and writing cursory comments, was thrown out by the Georgia Court of Appeals. The judge admits he got sloppy on the form, but stands by the merits of his decision and explains that the case was complicated by Georgia sentencing guidelines. JXB, a minor from central Georgia, was sentenced to a year in secure state detention for bringing a weapon to school, as specified in an order earlier this year from Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Philip Spivey. But the order itself was a pre-printed form that offered check-box options to serve as findings, such as: offender “has demonstrated by his conduct a lack of respect for authority, both parental and legal.”

The form also includes boilerplate language on the five categories that Georgia law requires juvenile sentencing judges to consider, such as needs and best interests of the child and protection of the community. Underneath, there is space for the court to record the facts in each category, said Carl Cansino, JXB’s attorney.

Taking the Time to Make Juvenile Court Work

A couple of weeks ago, I was in juvenile delinquency court and as often happens, a particular case got me thinking – and rethinking – about the system as a whole. A 14 year-old, whom I will call Sarah, was charged with misdemeanor assault.  She had hit another girl at the foster care facility where the two were living.  Sarah readily admitted to the charge, and the judge then moved to disposition, similar to sentencing in adult court.  A counselor reported that Sarah was receiving therapy and doing well in a class at the mediation center on “conflict coaching.” Her probation officer recommended that she remain on court supervision under the same terms.

The judge, however, wasn’t satisfied.  “I’m concerned,” she said to Sarah sternly.  “This is the third or fourth adjudication for assault in the past two years.  What is changing to help you get in charge of your emotions?”

Sarah stood and looked down at her hands.  “I don’t know.”  The courtroom was silent. “Your Honor,” her public defender began, standing with his client.  “Sarah has experienced significant trauma.  She is struggling with serious issues that are deep-seeded.  This is not to excuse her behavior, but to explain that she is receiving therapy and making improvements.”

As the hearing continued, I learned that Sarah’s father had never been a presence in her life and that her mother had died several years earlier.  She had been in residential group settings ever since. “Why do you become angry?” the judge asked the girl.  Sarah spoke haltingly. “When I see other people with mothers and fathers, I get upset,” she whispered.  Tears ran down her cheeks.

Gateway to Adult Court for Young Defendants Slowly Closing

In a Georgia courtroom last month, 11-year-old Dalton Archer plead guilty to murdering his father’s girlfriend near Christmastime last year, when he was 10. Archer automatically went through juvenile court, something that took years of fighting for a similar defendant in Pennsylvania. Though changes are happening across the country, not all young people are guaranteed a juvenile court hearing instead of adult court for very serious crimes. In 1997, Oklahoma law specified that children as young as 7 could be handed to adult courts, according to a 1998 report from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. At that time, about one-third of the states set some floor age between 10 and 15 for eligibility for transfer to criminal court.

Powerful Tool Shines Light on Secrecy in Juvenile System

Traditionally, juvenile courts have protected children from lasting stigma and emotional trauma through aggressive secrecy, in contrast to their adult counterparts. But the anonymity provided by the juvenile system is a direct impediment to journalists and others charged with delivering information to the public. But a powerful new tool, published this month by the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), provides a state-by-state breakdown of access to juvenile courts. The report, funded by a grant from the McCormick Foundation, appears in the Spring 2012 issue of RCFP’s quarterly publication, The News Media & The Law. Each state is profiled in detail, describing which juvenile proceedings and records are available to the public and which require special permission.

Well-being of Children Central to Courts’ Mission, Expert Panel Says


The nation’s juvenile and family courts need to lower walls that have blocked the sharing of data that is key for to marshaling a child through state agencies and the justice system, according to a gathering of court experts Thursday. If the courts fail, a child’s mental, physical and emotional well-being could be damaged, according to a series of measures and recommendations put forth by the panel to guide judges and courts in handling youth in the system. “The days of sitting in your office creating your own [data] system without input from others – those days are gone,” said Sandra Moore, head of Pennsylvania’s Office of Children and Families in the Court. “We just can’t function that way anymore…The court system needs to be able to talk to the child welfare system.”

Courts Have Had Some Success

Over the years, judges and the courts have had success pushing forward the conversation on the safety of state wards and foster children, as well as dealing with matters like visitation and permanent placement, the panelists said. “The problem is, with well-being, frankly we weren’t sure how effective the courts would be,” said Gene Flango, executive director at the National Center for State Courts.