Just World Belief and Victim Blaming

By Alicia DeVault, B.S., and Martha-Elin Blomquist, Ph.D.

Media coverage of recent events such as campus sexual assaults and officer-involved shootings brings to light a topic that is not often discussed: victim blaming. Victim blaming can be defined as holding the victim partially, or wholly, responsible for the crimes that have been committed against them. This is not restricted solely to acquaintances or close friends, and family, of the victim. Indeed, victim blaming can come from medical profesimagesionals, law enforcement, media, and society at large.

Victim blaming is a serious issue that can lead people to discredit victims of traumatic experiences. It is not unusual in rape cases to hear people express opinions that place blame primarily upon the victim due to clothing, inebriation, or other factors. With regard to officer-involved shootings, it is also not uncommon to hear sentiments detailing the past criminal history of the victim as a reason why the shooting occurred.

Victim Blaming and Just World Belief

Victim blaming has serious consequences and implications for how victims of traumatic events come forward to report their experiences. It has further implications for how the justice system handles such victims. If victim blaming is to end and victims of traumatic experiences are to feel comfortable coming forward with their stories, lay persons as well as professionals involved in the legal system first need to be aware of the ways in which social psychological factors are involved in victim blaming.

One such social psychological factor that can impact victim blaming is belief in a just world.

The basic premise of this belief is that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. In other words, people “get what they deserve.”

This belief offers many protective benefits. For instance, belief in a just world allows people to feel as if the world has order. It gives people confidence they will be treated fairly by others and not be the victim of disaster. In essence, belief in a just world indicates an obligation to behave fairly. By being a good person and behaving in a fair manner, only positive things will occur; being a bad person and behaving in an unfair manner ensures that negative things will occur.

Belief in a just world helps people interpret events of personal life in a meaningful way. If something negative happens, a person can say that it was because of a fault of their own (e.g., because of a moral failing) or it was deserved. In this vein, belief in a just world serves as a reference to judge and explain both the fate of others and our own. It further gives psychological comfort to people. Indeed, it provides a way of coping with an uncertain world and the ever present possibility that violence will occur.

People who have levels of belief in a just world have been found to admire fortunate people and derogate victims. People who are victimized are seen as morally lacking, whereas people who are successful are seen as virtuous. Derogating victims leads people to focus on the victim – rather than the perpetrators of crime and violence – and to find fault with his or her behavior. In rape cases, this could involve focusing on the way the person dressed or how much alcohol the person imbibed. In shooting cases, it could involve attention to the past criminal history or the appearance of the person (e.g., excessive tattoos). In both of these cases, concern with the victim’s so-called “faults” leads to conclusions that the individual is “moral lacking” and therefore does not deserve system responses that are supportive or impartial.

Problems with Belief in a Just World and Victim Blaming

Even though belief in a just world has positive benefits to those who hold the belief, it can be problematic in that it leads people to have biases that are factually and morally unsupportable. These biases prevent people from actually living according to other standards and values they hold (e.g., fairness, equal protection under the law, charity, justice and empathy). These biases may lead people, who are otherwise good-hearted, well-meaning and caring, to blame, rather than sympathize, with victims.

Blaming victims for what has happened to them can lead to victims feeling vilified and to perpetrators not being prosecuted for their crimes. Indeed, victim blaming can often prevent victims from seeking psychological help and reporting traumatic crimes to police. This, in turn, undermines the credibility and capacity of the court system both to achieve accurate fact-finding and render justice.

So What Do We Do?

We all have implicit biases. Recognizing them is the first step in combating them. When an individual recognizes that he or she has the thoughts or views described above in response to an incident of rape or police shooting, stop and reflect. Ask yourself the following questions: am I blaming the victim? Why do I think this way? What factual information do I have about the victim or perpetrator? What facts and actions are needed to promote justice, public safety, and fairness? What other beliefs and values could counteract biases about the victim?

In understanding that belief in a just world can result in victim blaming, the hope is that people can become more aware of their biases and cognitive processes. Encouraging the open and objective pursuit of justice regarding the victim and the accused perpetrator will help to fight against victim blaming and achieve a safer and fairer society.

The post was published in conjunction with the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

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Keeping a Grim Tally in Juvenile Court

imageOne recent morning I sat in juvenile delinquency court on the fifth floor of the county courthouse in Durham, N.C., and kept a bleak tally. A 14-year-old boy admitted to a larceny charge for having stolen a video console and games from his neighbor, a serious crime — a felony, because the property was worth more than $1,000. The boy was thin and wiry, and had a blank expression. He wore jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and no coat, despite cold temperatures. He was African-American.

A 15-year-old boy was charged with larceny of an iPhone and possession of marijuana. His lawyer told the judge that when the boy was sleeping during “in-school suspension,” someone had placed another classmate’s iPhone in his coat pocket. As soon as the teen had awoken, he gave the phone to the school resource officer, yet he was still charged. In the courtroom, the boy stood up straight, dutifully said “yes, sir” and “no, sir” to the judge, and was placed on probation for a year, a disposition that could lead to incarceration for up to five days, placement with the Department of Social Services or nine months in a boot camp. He also was African-American.

Another 14-year-old boy was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon inflicting serious injury, a violent felony, for a scuffle with an older teenager who was an alleged gang member. The “dangerous weapon” was a small hand weight the boy carried for protection. The “serious injury” was a deep cut to the older teen’s head, which had been injured after the boy threw the weight in anger. The boy stood nervously with his mother, who spoke no English. He was Latino.

There were several other cases on that morning, and the pattern continued: young teenagers — either black or brown — who were charged with criminal offenses typical of adolescence. They had taken things that didn’t belong to them, used illegal drugs or gotten into fights. Yet, in a metropolitan area with a population of 288,000 that is 42 percent white, 38 percent black and 13 percent Latino, there was not one white child in the courtroom.

Having practiced in the juvenile courts of this Southern purple state for the past decade, I can report that this latest tally was not unusual. In fact, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, children of color are significantly overrepresented in juvenile courts across the U.S. While white children are occasionally charged with criminal offenses, the vast majority are African-American or Latino.

That same week I watched the new documentary, “Kids for Cash,” a chilling tale of corrupt juvenile court judges in Luzerne County, Pa., who took kickbacks of nearly $2.6 million to build two private, for-profit detention centers. From 2003 through 2008, the judges committed hundreds of children to these facilities following brief court appearances during which the children unknowingly waived counsel and admitted guilt to minor offenses. Many then spent months or years separated from their families, leaving them profoundly damaged. Thanks to the dogged advocacy of lawyers Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz from the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, the judges were eventually convicted in federal court and themselves sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

What struck me most about the film was not the unusual nature of the cash kickbacks but the fact that the real tragedy in Luzerne County — like Durham, where I practice, or your own local juvenile court — was the inaction of others, including probation officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys, who all stood by and said nothing.

As I sit in these courtrooms, I try to remain conscious of my own role in perpetuating a system of racial and socioeconomic inequality. Have I failed to speak? Have I failed to act? Weeks, months and years pass, and the composition of the children in juvenile court remains the same. I know that I am not doing enough, but it is not clear what can or should be done. I only know that whenever possible, I am driven to keep our young clients out of the juvenile justice system, because it is very difficult for them to get out.

This essay was originally published by Youth Today.

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Juvenile Lifers: Reason for Hope

On December 1, 2014, the Supreme Court again deflected an effort to clarify whether its landmark 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama banning mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively. It was the second time this term and at least the fourth time since last June.  [Although the Court accepted review of a case raising the retroactivity issue on December 12th in Toca v. Louisiana, the case was rendered moot several weeks later when George Toca accepted a plea deal and was released.]

The Court’s December 1 refusal to hear an appealimage of an Illinois Supreme Court ruling allowing for retroactive application means that at least 80 of the 100 inmates serving juvenile life without parole in that state will now have an opportunity for resentencing.

While the fate of an estimated 2,000 individuals across the United States who are currently serving mandatory life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenses committed as minors still remains unclear, post-Miller decisions in state supreme courts and state legislatures suggest they may have reason to hope.

To put in perspective the latest deflection, each year the Court receives some 10,000 petitions to hear cases. The justices and their law clerks then narrow the list down to about 80 for review. In most cases, including this one, the Court offers no explanation for its decision either to grant or deny certiorari (review).

Of four recent petitions that the Court has declined to review on whether mandatory juvenile life without parole should be applied retroactively, two were appealing state court decisions that allowed for retroactivity; the other two were appealing ones that had denied it.

Miller v. Alabama was the third in a recent series of juvenile sentencing decisions from the Court that interpreted the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Roper v. Simmons, decided by the Court in 2005, banned the use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders. Graham v. Florida, decided in 2010, banned life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

With Miller, the Court effectively struck down laws in approximately 28 states, as well as federal statutes that required mandatory, non-parole-eligible life sentences to be imposed on individuals under 18 who were convicted of homicide.

According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Miller also led six states (Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming) to abolish juvenile life without parole sentences in their entirety and five others (California, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington) to severely limit its use. On a national level, in October, the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association passed a resolution, likely to become ABA policy in February, calling on states and the federal government to abolish juvenile life without parole.

The Miller Court, in its 5-4 ruling, called for individual review of each case and careful consideration of the classic hallmarks of adolescence, including immaturity, impetuosity and the failure to appreciate risks and to assess consequences. Miller also required sentencing judges to recognize the impact of the child’s family and home environment as well as the child’s role in the offense and potential for rehabilitation.

The Court said discretionary life sentences for minors should be rare. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, declared:

Given all that we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.
Since the Miller decision, state legislatures have been slow to respond. But in fact, that may not be a negative development.

According to the Sentencing Project, 15 of the 28 states affected have not passed compliance legislation. However, of the 13 that have passed new laws, 11 require young offenders to serve lengthy terms ranging from 15 to 40 years before parole review can even be considered.

In Missouri, the lack of legislative action has actually produced a more positive result through the state’s supreme court, which ruled in State v. Hart that prosecutors must persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that a life without parole sentence is “just and appropriate under all the circumstances.” So far, the state has been unable to secure such a sentence.

The central, unanswered question by the Miller Court is whether the decision applies to those estimated 2,000 individuals sentenced before 2012 to mandatory life-without-parole sentences for homicides committed as minors. If it does, these offenders could receive new sentencing hearings, and, possibly, new sentences.

If not, the life sentence would stand, forever foreclosing the opportunity for a judge to consider the young offender’s individual characteristics and circumstances.

With repeated denials of certiorari in the past six months, the Supreme Court appears content to allow individual states to resolve the issue of retroactivity, despite a clear split among state supreme courts as well as federal circuit courts. Traditionally, such splits warranted the Court’s review of so-called percolating issues; but since judicial review is discretionary (requiring at least four of the nine justices to agree to accept a case), it is difficult to predict if or when the Court will address the issue.

Meanwhile, there have been a growing number of state court decisions in which the majority ruled in favor of retroactivity. In October, the Court let stand the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision in Nebraska v. Mantich to apply Miller retroactively. In addition to Nebraska and Illinois, seven other state supreme courts have applied Miller retroactively to juvenile offenders whose homicide conviction was final before June 25, 2012: Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.

In June, the Court let stand the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Cunningham v. Pennsylvania not to apply Miller retroactively, and in October it let stand a similar decision from the Ohio Court of Appeals. Supreme courts in three other states — Louisiana, Michigan Minnesota — have also ruled that it does not apply retroactively, while those in Alabama, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina (among others) are still considering the retroactivity issue.

As for the federal courts, no appellate courts have squarely decided for or against Miller retroactivity, although there have been recent arguments in the 4th and 8th Circuits, and a case that’s being briefed in the 3rd, where decisions will all be forthcoming.

A number of circuits have addressed the strength of the retroactivity argument in assessing whether to allow habeas petitions from prisoners serving juvenile life without parole. At least six (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th) have allowed these petitions to go forward, while two have not (5th and 11th). None of these rulings, however, is either precedential or appealable.

Federal district courts have also begun to rule on the issue, with decisions on both sides. It is possible that the Supreme Court is waiting to see how other lower courts sort out the question of retroactivity before it addresses the issue itself.

Time may actually prove to be an ally. If state supreme courts continue to find Miller retroactive and order resentencing hearings, and as judges begin to conduct those hearings, the Supreme Court may be hard pressed to rule against such a trend.

The Court’s latest decision will have an immediate impact on one particularly high-profile case in Illinois. In Illinois v. Davis, the state court had allowed Addolfo Davis to apply for a review of his original LWOP sentence. In 1990, Davis, then 14, was accused, along with two older teens, of fatally shooting two people and injuring two others from a rival gang in Chicago. There was conflicting testimony during the trial about whether Davis himself fired a weapon or had merely stood by the doorway while his co-defendants forced their way into the apartment where the shooting occurred.

Although neither testimony nor forensic evidence established that he injured or shot anyone, he was ultimately convicted and sentenced under an Illinois law requiring life without parole for first-degree murder.

Because of the mandatory nature of the state statute, the sentencing judge was prohibited from considering Addolfo’s youth, family background, role in the offense or any other potentially mitigating factors.

At the time of the crime, nearly 25 years ago, Davis was 5 feet tall and 100 pounds. He was raised by his grandmother, who worked long hours to support her husband, who was disabled and bedridden, a son with an intellectual disability and a drug-addicted daughter, who was Addolfo’s mother. They lived in a building’s cellar that lacked separate rooms or a kitchen; there was only a refrigerator and electricity from an extension cord connected to the landlord’s upstairs apartment. When he was 9, Davis committed his first crime — grabbing the purse of a woman at a gas station to pay for something to eat. Drawn to older men in the neighborhood who were gang members, he quickly learned how to steal cars and deal drugs.

Less than a year before the shootings, Davis could barely read or write and was displaying signs of mental illness. He was reported to bang his head against the wall, burn himself with cigarettes and jump from the roof of one building to another. Despite recommendations that he be placed in a psychiatric facility, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services put him in a temporary shelter that experts had described as a “human warehouse.”

Soon after, he ran away, and the murders took place five days later.

Davis is now 38. He is incarcerated at Menard Correctional Center near the southern tip of Illinois. He writes poetry and has earned his high school equivalency degree. With the Supreme Court’s decision, he finally has the opportunity to demonstrate the basic premise behind Miller: that children are not merely miniature adults and that they have the unique capacity to change.

This essay was originally jointly published by The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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Kiddie Court is No Joke for Juveniles

imageA client of mine, who I’ll call Deanna, was a 15-year-old in the ninth grade at a public high school in North Carolina. She lived with her mother, who was unemployed, and two younger brothers in government-subsidized housing. She had never been in juvenile court, and had an unblemished school disciplinary record. She was struggling academically, however, in danger of failing algebra.

A rumor circulated among students that someone was going to “shoot up” the school on Dec. 21, the date signifying the end of the phase of the Mayan calendar thought by some to represent the end of the world.

The police officer assigned to the school interviewed several students to determine who started the rumor. A ninth-grade boy claimed he heard it from Deanna. When questioned, Deanna denied starting the rumor but admitted she had seen something about it on Facebook and mentioned it to her friends.

The rumor quickly spread, and the school community became alarmed. Administrators sent an email to the district relaying the rumor and advising parents to keep their children home from school on Dec. 21 if they chose.

In January, the school officer filed a juvenile delinquency complaint against Deanna, alleging that she had committed the serious felony of making a false report concerning mass violence on educational property. An element of that complaint requires proof that the juvenile knew or had reason to know that the report was false.

The complaint was assigned to a juvenile probation officer (JPO), whose evaluation consisted of a 20-minute interview with Deanna and her mother, during which Deanna had no right to counsel and received no information about any other rights she might have.

The JPO authorized the complaint to be filed as a juvenile delinquency petition, following her office’s practice that complaints that allege felonies are presumptively approved. She conducted no independent investigation or analysis of evidence. The cursory intake interview, which focused on Deanna’s mediocre grades and her mother’s unemployment, merely confirmed for the JPO that juvenile court involvement was warranted.

Deanna’s initial court appearance was in February. The judge notified her that counsel would soon be appointed. By then, however, Deanna had already received a 10-day school suspension and had missed yet another day of instruction to appear in court.

Deanna became increasingly anxious and upset. She was teased at school for having been suspended, and she worried her friends would find out about the pending criminal charges. Meanwhile, her mother’s job hunt was repeatedly interrupted by the case, increasing tension at home. By the time she met with her public defender, Deanna only wanted the case to end, imploring, “Can we just move on and say I started the rumor? This is stupid.”

Deanna’s entry to the juvenile court system is representative of how many young people find themselves in U.S. delinquency courts. Deanna was accused of typical adolescent misconduct committed in a school setting, which is one of the primary feeders into juvenile court. Since the mid-1990s, zero-tolerance policies in public schools have led to children being criminally charged for misbehavior that previously would have been addressed through internal school procedures. As a result, Deanna not only received a two-week suspension, she was also questioned by a police officer, interviewed by a JPO, adjudicated in a public forum and placed on court supervision for at least 12 months, with a variety of conditions imposed on both her and her parents.

Although the media, members of the public and even some JPOs, prosecutors and judges colloquially refer to juvenile court as “kiddie court,” presuming it has few negative effects on children, research indicates that the impact of juvenile court processing — such as Deanna’s — is not benign. Potential negative consequences of juvenile delinquency adjudications are felt in areas such as housing, employment, immigration and education, as well as enhanced penalties for future offenses.

Deanna’s felony adjudication, for example, could be used against her in the contexts of pretrial release, plea negotiation or sentencing if she were to face new charges as an adult in criminal court. The prosecutor could invoke it during a bail hearing to support an argument for a higher bond or during plea-bargaining to push for a more punitive sentence. It could also potentially hinder her ability to obtain employment and college admission, as well as financial aid. Furthermore, longitudinal studies have shown that children exposed to juvenile court reoffend at higher rates and are stigmatized by even the most minimal contact with the court system.

We also know that contact with the juvenile justice system is inherently criminogenic, and that when young people perceive court procedures to be unfair, they reoffend at higher rates. We know that detention, even for short periods of time, can be damaging to a child’s emotional well-being and that it exposes young people to the risk of physical and sexual assault. We know that long-term commitment exacerbates the conditions of those with pre-existing behavioral and mental health problems, which includes a significant subgroup of those who enter the juvenile court system. We know that reducing the rate of juvenile incarceration does not increase juvenile crime or violence, and that the number of cases that are either diverted or petitioned approximates the same percentage of youth who have been found to grow out of delinquent behavior through normal adolescent development without any court intervention.

Yet we continue to use the juvenile justice system as the primary safety net for many poor children and their familiestwitter-bird-small. We allow those children with the most needs to be fast-tracked through an indiscriminate intake system. We watch passively as they are saddled with the stigma of juvenile delinquency adjudications and are often warehoused for months or years in juvenile detention facilities.

Imagine if Deanna were from a family of means, with two college-educated parents who were gainfully employed. Imagine that she had ready access to tutors and therapists. Picture her living in a well-tended home. Would this have made a difference at intake? Would the JPO have recommended some alternative to formal issuance of a felony petition? What separates these two versions of Deanna? Until the intake process is restructured, we will continue to have a juvenile court system in which the only logical answer to this question is socio-economic status.

This essay was originally published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

My research on the juvenile court intake process was published in the 2013 Texas Tech Law Review.

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Children in Isolation: The Solitary Confinement of Youth

Ismael Nazario was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by his mom, a single parent who always emphasized the importance of education and doing well in school. When Ismael was 13, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, Ismael began to struggle.

By 10th grade, he had lost interest in school and instead spent his time smoking marijuana and talking to girls. At 15, he got into a scuffle with another student and was arrested, placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station. A year later, at age 16, he was charged with assault and sent to Rikers Island jail to await resolution of his case.

There he was attacked by four inmates who demandimageed his phone privileges and commissary food and required him to ask their permission before sitting in a chair or using the bathroom. Ismael quickly learned that in order to survive, he needed to be ready to fight.

Although Ismael’s assault charge was ultimately dismissed, the two months that he spent in jail changed the way in which he saw himself and his place in the world. The following year, at age 17, he was once again held at Rikers — this time for two alleged robberies — as he could not afford to post bail. After getting into a fight with a group of other inmates, which guards characterized as inciting a riot, Ismail was placed in solitary confinement.

While there, he hallucinated, paced, talked to himself, cried and screamed. The New York City Department of Corrections disciplinary rules allow for inmates to be sentenced to punitive solitary confinement for such seemingly minor infractions as horseplay, noisy behavior or annoying a staff member.

Before Ismael left Rikers two years later, he had spent more than 300 days in “the box,” a six-by-eight-foot cell containing a bunk, sink, toilet, and metal door with no natural light and a small mesh window through which food is delivered. His longest stretch in solitary lasted four months. All of his time incarcerated at Rikers was in pretrial detention — he had not yet been convicted of a crime.

Ismael Nazario’s experience is representative of the many thousands of young people who are held in isolation on any given day across the globe. I’ve conducted new research that reveals that approximately 30 percent of the world’s countries either employ the practice or legally condone its use.

Whether the young person is held in a juvenile or immigrant detention center, adult jail or prison, the common denominator for all these settings is that the individual is under the age of 18, removed from the general population of the facility, and kept alone in a room or a cell for 23 hours each day, with one hour of exercise in what is often a small cage.

Frequently the triggering event for imposing isolation is a relatively minor misbehavior that violates the facility’s rules. Large percentages of teenagers in solitary have diagnosed mental health problems. Solitary may also be imposed during pretrial detention to coerce suspects into confessing or pleading guilty.

Government entities have long justified the practice of solitary confinement on only a few grounds. U.S. Bureau of Prisons regulations stipulate that solitary confinement is warranted to ensure the safety and security of the facility or as a sanction for committing a prohibited act. Corrections officers maintain that solitary is the best way to prevent violence among inmates, many of whom are mentally ill, and is necessary for prison guard safety. Studies have found that isolation is one of the key correlates for reports of illness, self-mutilation and jail suicides.

When the inmate is alone and living in disciplinary or segregated housing, violence toward staff has also been found to be significantly more likely. It has even been suggested that isolation and intensified control measures in prison settings generate a culture or ecology of cruelty, causing long-term psychological harm to the correctional officers who work in these units. Likewise, studies have found that subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement makes it more difficult for them to assimilate back into their communities, increasing the risk of recidivism.

There is no easy answer to the question of why the practice of isolating young inmates continues to persist despite extensive evidence of its harm. Since the 1980s, a major factor has been the tough on crime penal philosophy perpetuated by legislators and a lack of meaningful judicial review of the conditions of isolation. From the perspective of those within the prison industrial complex, it is easier to keep adolescent super-predators locked alone in cells than to implement the reforms necessary to create a healthy correctional environment.

This attitude is particularly pronounced when the young people are black or brown, have no one to advocate for them, and have been labeled bad kids or throwaway kids by the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These factors are further compounded by the high percentages of imprisoned youth who are mentally ill, have drug or alcohol addictions, or both, presenting even greater challenges to facilities with few resources.

Ismael Nazario, who spent more than 300 days in “the box” in Rikers Island jail, is now in his mid-20s. His mother survived cancer, and she and her son are still close. Ismael eventually pled guilty to one of the robbery charges and the other was reduced to a misdemeanor, enabling him to avoid a felony conviction. Since his release he has found meaningful employment — for three years he worked as a case manager with at-risk adolescents in Brooklyn and more recently with adults and teenagers who have been released from Rikers Island. Ismail does not talk with his clients about his own time in the box, but he has seen what the experience has done to other boys.

Most young people who are held in isolation are not as fortunate as Ismail. Yet, the question of whether to continue to isolate youth cannot be characterized as merely another intractable issue about which reasonable minds may differ. The justifications that allow governments to keep teenagers alone in cells for hours, days and weeks at a time are not the result of rational thinking based on evidence. Instead, the solitary confinement of youth is one more byproduct of the systemic problems that continue to plague modern society: the vanishing social safety-net, generational poverty, implicit bias, the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and the criminalization of mental illness. Ending the practice of isolating children is an important step toward confronting these broader issues.

This essay was originally published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

My scholarship on the solitary confinement of youth will be published in the Wake Forest Law Review later this year; a draft version may be found here.

 

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Engagement of Victims in Juvenile and Family Courts

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By Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D. and Kelly Ranasinghe, J.D., C.W.L.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than three million children were reported to authorities for abuse or neglect in 2012, with approximately two million of those cases receiving a response by Child Protective Services. Further, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance reports that in 2013 U.S. residents age 12 or older experienced an estimated 6.1 million violent victimizations. Although it is not clear how many of these victims came in direct contact with juvenile and family courts, it is likely a substantial portion experience at least some contact with the justice system. Before appropriate services for victims can be coordinated by justice system professionals, it is necessary to identify who is a victim and to what degree has the experience of victimization impacted their functioning across physiological, psychological and social domains. Although identification and engagement is seemingly an easy task, in reality, it is more complex than many imagine. From a public health perspective, however, the payoff is substantial – and there are numerous ways to help victims. For example, in cases where victims develop traumatic stress reactions, there are myriad evidence-based treatments (e.g., trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy) that can promote healing and limit future victimization. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) presents common challenges to appropriate engagement of victims in the justice system.

Challenge #1: Victims neither seen nor heard. Victims of crimes or other traumatic experiences might not come to the attention of the justice system because they do not come forward to authorities. A victim may also not have the capacity or ability to come forward (e.g., in the case of child experiencing abuse or neglect, intimidation in cases of domestic violence, etc.). Further, some victims might not know that the behavior or event they are subjected to is considered a crime, or victims in rural environments may find it difficult to report crime or seek help due to physical isolation. These realities speak to the importance of strong education for judges and allied court professionals on the signs of trauma and the importance of screening protocols.

Challenge #2: Victims seen but not heard. Even when a traumatic or adverse past is revealed or discovered, victims still face challenges. Ultimately, knowing one has a history of victimization is a necessary but not sufficient step in offering and coordinating indicated support. This is moving beyond understanding the symptomatology of victims; it also is considering the nuances of how experiences might impact the presentation of victims and giving voice to the victim about what they want and need. Asking “What happened to you – and how can we help?” is critical to ensuring victims are truly heard and provided maximum opportunity for self-determination.

Challenge #3: Victims resist or inconsistently engage in services. When victims are identified and indicate a desire for help, matching them with appropriate services can be difficult. This is not surprising. The court system was originally structured to function as an institution devoted to maintaining social order by providing dispute resolution mechanisms. In addition, many areas simply do not have the capacity to handle the many people who are referred to services by the court. Further, one remarkably persistent myth is that victims are automatically inclined to pursue treatment at all. It is important to remember that an arrest, the intervention of the court or the presence of a victim advocate does not alleviate all (or any) of the victim’s socio-economic and even psychological pressures to maintain the status quo. Many new professionals to the criminal justice field are struck by the initial reaction of a victim-client who they are there to help. In many instances, a victim’s reaction to intervention may range from dismissal\minimization to outright hostility and aggressiveness.

Challenge #4: Victims as offenders. The reality is that there is often a blurred line regarding victimization when dealing with offenders in court. Studies suggest, for example, that upwards of 90% of youth involved in the deep end of the juvenile justice system have some history of trauma or adverse events, with many demonstrating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. A core difficulty when working with these trauma victims who are also juvenile offenders are the diametrically different ways the court approaches treatment. For the majority of offenders in the juvenile justice system, an integral therapeutic goal of their probation is acknowledging the harm that they have inflicted upon others and taking responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, an integral part of trauma-focused treatment is ensuring the victim acknowledges her own trauma and victimization and understanding that the violence, abuse or trauma was not her fault. Accordingly, many courts struggle with victims that also can be offenders. Sometimes there is a reluctance to view victim-offenders as “injured” versus victim or offender. Indeed, this can be a difficult balance to strike, but is seen as critical to helping modify future offending behavior or being placed at risk for additional victimization.

Few will argue there are a substantial number of victims that likely come in contact with juvenile and family courts. Identification of those victims presents challenges, and even when identified, there are myriad considerations in assessing the degree to which services are needed and desired. Even when victims agree to participate in support, there are further challenges to matching services to need, assisting victims to remain engaged in services, and more holistically viewing injured parties. Trauma-informed courts, however, are a critical component in the healing community, and awareness of the dynamic and challenges outlined here are important to responding appropriately to victims – whether or not they develop traumatic stress reactions. To that end, the position of the NCJFCJ in regards to treatment of victims, as adopted by the Board of Directors via resolution in July 2012 as part of the Project ONE Key Principles, states:

All children, youth, families and communities deserve a justice system that promotes the safety and empowerment of victims. The need for information, efficiency and compliance must be weighed against the need for confidentiality. To empower victims, courts and other stakeholders should respect victim autonomy related to service access and process, as well as provide all relief allowable under law while meeting a broad array of safety, socioeconomic and community restoration needs. In domestic violence cases, victim autonomy related to decisions to leave a relationship or reunify should be emphasized whenever possible. Courts should treat the safety of children and adult victims of domestic violence with equal regard, and practice should demonstrate the understanding that the best interests, safety and resiliency of children are inextricably linked to the health, safety and welfare of their battered parent.

This post was published in conjunction with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

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The Value of Law Students to Juvenile Court Practice

imageAs I approach the end of my 11th year of teaching in a clinical program at the University of North Carolina School of Law, I have been thinking a lot about the value that students add to the dynamics of the courtroom on any given day, as well as what they contribute to the juvenile justice system as a whole. The same, of course, can be said about the contributions that students in other graduate disciplines, such as social work and public policy, offer to their field placements and other types of student internships.

Recently I watched as one of my third-year students negotiated the terms of an admission with a prosecutor in a local juvenile delinquency court. The student, who I’ll call Carly, insisted the state did not have enough evidence to prove that her 14-year-old client had committed the crimes of breaking and entering or larceny. During the previous week, she had visited the scene of the offense, interviewed witnesses and researched the law. As a result, she knew that the police report was inaccurate — that one of the witnesses could not positively identify her client as the person seen leaving the empty house and that another witness had no intention of appearing in court. The most the state could prove, by Carly’s analysis, was that her client had conspired with another young person to break in, but that he had neither entered the premises nor possessed the stolen items — evidence consistent with a minor misdemeanor rather than a serious felony.

I stood several yards away while Carly made her pitch to the prosecutor, and I recognized the veteran lawyer’s facial expression: a mixture of bemusement and annoyance. Then Carly opened her case file and took out the police report, which was marked up and highlighted, and she methodically explained why the evidence was insufficient and why she had advised her client to fight the charges at an adjudicatory hearing. The investigating police officer in the case sat between them, listening closely as Carly argued that the elements of the offenses could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When she had finished, the prosecutor slowly shook his head as he told her, “You are exhausting me.”

Moments later the case was called, and we hesitantly approached the front of the courtroom with the young client and his mother. “Do we have a deal?” I asked Carly. “I’m not sure,” she answered. “The prosecutor hasn’t told me his decision.” We soon learned that Carly’s offer had been accepted and that her client would admit to a single misdemeanor, a charge that was consistent with the evidence and acceptable to the teenager. In the context of juvenile defense practice, it was a win.

In 1899, when the first juvenile court in the United States was established in Chicago, the proceedings were closed to those who were not parties to the case, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting children’s privacy rights. In the decades that followed, as delinquency court sentences became more punitive and due process protections were ignored, there was a movement to open the courtroom to allow the public to observe and serve as witness to the proceedings. Yet the reality today is that even in states like North Carolina — where juvenile courtrooms remain open — outside observers are rarely present; instead, there are overworked defense attorneys, worn down by the systemic pressure to move cases, bargain away their clients’ rights and not ruffle the feathers of prosecutors or judges, who often determine case assignments.

This has created a system in which students practicing under the supervision of law school clinical professors provide the only scrutiny of these forums. They have been taught the meaning of burden of proof and inadmissible hearsay. They appreciate the necessity of rigorous advocacy by defense counsel, and they hold these principles to be essential to establishing an even playing field for their clients. Their faith that the other actors in the system — prosecutors, judges and police officers — will ultimately do the right thing, rather than being naïve and misplaced, is actually infectious. Their lack of cynicism helps ensure the integrity of the proceedings and re-inspires jaded lawyers like me, just as students in other disciplines infuse vigor into deliberations in their work settings and bring tenacity to the mission. This is why, after a decade of juvenile court practice, I am more than willing to continue — as long as I have a law student by my side.

This post was originally published by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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Destructive Justice: A Lost Boy, A Broken System, and the Small Light of Hope

destructive-justice-the-storyBy Patricia Robinson, University of North Carolina School of Law ’16

Destructive Justice: A Lost Boy, A Broken System, and the Small Light of Hope (2014) by Nicholas Frank is a book in which you know the story before you even begin. A quick glance at the back cover tells you the essential plot line-teenager from a good family goes off the rails and into drugs and gangs, participates in a botched robbery at 17, and lands himself in prison with consecutive life sentences. It is a bleak picture, filled with the failures of our justice system on multiple levels. However, Destructive Justice is not a bleak book.  It is ultimately a loving father’s portrayal of his son.

Nicholas Frank begins the book with the birth of his son Nathan and a description of his early childhood. Frank depicts Nathan as a vibrant kid with a great sense of humor, keen intelligence, and a sense of curiosity about the world around him. Yet Frank is also honest about the difficulties of Nathan’s childhood, most of which stemmed from an ugly divorce and an even uglier custody battle that raged on for several years.

The chapters depicting Nathan’s gradual descent in early adolescence are some of the most difficult pages in the book to read. Although the reader already knows the outcome, the continual poor choices that Nathan makes are devastating. Again and again, Nathan chooses the wrong path, and again and again, his father attempts to reroute his course. Frank helps Nathan kick his drug habit, only to have him start using again; gets him back in school, only to have him drop out; enrolls him in a rehabilitation program, only to have him refuse to attend; and finally, bails him out of jail, only to have him land there, once, and perhaps, for all.

Yet these early chapters are also filled with snippets of wisdom from experts in the psychology of adolescents, experts who confirm that adolescents do not assess the risks and consequences of their behavior the way that adults do, and that adolescents’ brains react to the presence of peers and attention like an insect to light.

Unfortunately, as is clear from the chapters describing Nathan’s experience in the court system, many leaders in our country do not understand these key differences between adolescence and adulthood. Though he was only 17 and without a criminal record when he committed the armed robbery, Nathan was transferred from juvenile court to adult court. From there it was a tragedy of errors–poor decisions by the defense attorney, Nathan’s failure to accept plea deals, questionable statutory interpretation, and the judge’s ultimate discretion in sentencing–that landed Nathan, at 18, with two life sentences.

The story could have ended here, but it doesn’t, and I’m glad, because the final chapters were some of my favorite in the book. They show the reality of Nathan’s life in prison, and the violence he suffered as a result of his former gang affiliation and his simple attempts to stand up for himself.  It is also during this time in prison that Frank, and you, the reader, begin to see a transformation in Nathan.  Through letters from Nathan, his unlikely inmate friend, and even prison guards, we learn that “[i]n one of the worst place on earth, [Nathan] has found the best parts of himself.”

The final chapters provide an update on the law concerning prisoners sentenced to life without parole for non-violent crimes committed under the age of 18.  Nathan is still in prison, and may be for many more years. However, Frank’s final message is one of hope, both for his son, and for his readers that may work to change the system. This book could appeal to a wide array of audiences-law students, practicing prosecutors and defense attorneys, child advocates, social workers, parents of teenagers, teenagers, and anyone who would appreciate a story of redemption.

The book is available for purchase via Amazon, Outskirts Press, and Barnes and Noble.  For more information, visit the Destructive Justice website.

 

 

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Five Questions for Prof. Tamar Birckhead

Prof. Birckhead with UNC Law clinic students.

Prof. Birckhead with UNC Law clinic students.

Recently I was interviewed for the new Clinical Law Prof Blog .  The text of the interview appears below:

 

 

 

Last month the University of North Carolina School of Law appointed Professor Tamar Birckhead as Director of Clinical Programs.   Today she is the first subject of a new series for the blog, Five Questions, in which we ask professors to reflect on their work and life in the academy.

1. What first drew you to clinical legal education?

I had been practicing as a public defender for ten years (in both state and federal court), and I was ready to take a step back and think about the broader questions and issues raised by my experiences in and observations of the criminal justice system.  Legal academia was very appealing to me, though I wanted to find a way to continue to spend time in the courtroom as well as serve the same client population.  I had loved my clinical experiences during law school and I come from a family of teachers, so clinical legal education seemed to be a natural fit.  Also, I was an English major in college and have always loved writing and research, so I have appreciated the opportunity to write traditional legal scholarship; several years ago, I switched to the tenure track and then became a tenured member of the faculty.

2.  What advice about teaching would you give to yourself if you could chat with you as a rookie prof? 

I would emphasize that the “political” aspects of serving as a law school faculty member – including establishing good working relationships with administrators, deans, and faculty outside of the clinic – are vitally important, and that the way in which I teach my students to advocate on behalf of their clients is not necessarily the best strategy for approaching advocacy for one’s self or one’s program within the legal academy.  Most of my faculty colleagues are not and have not been practicing lawyers, meaning that the culture and the tenor of the institution can be very different than that which exists among litigators.  I’d encourage carefully picking one’s battles and remaining focused on the aspects of the job that I most enjoy – working closely with and serving as a mentor to my students, advancing social justice, and contributing to the welfare of underserved communities.  In other words, I’ve mellowed and matured within the past ten years; I try to maintain a positive attitude no matter what the circumstance and to enter potentially difficult situations with an expectation that understanding and agreement can and will be reached.

 3. What adjustments in your own work do you anticipate as you take responsibility for directing the program?

As the director of clinical programs, I now supervise six students per semester in the Youth Justice Clinic instead of eight.  I also still teach the companion course to the Clinic with my wonderful colleague, Barbara Fedders, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.  I do anticipate, however, that given my administrative responsibilities it will be much more difficult to be a productive scholar, though I also don’t want to stop contributing to the conversation around issues of juvenile justice and the criminalization of poverty.

4.  What plans do you have for UNC’s clinical program?

I served as interim director this past year, and I have tried to develop more collaboration and cohesion among the seven clinical faculty who teach in our five clinics and to improve morale.  We began the school year with an all-day faculty retreat, during which we discussed our short and long-term professional goals, our individual and collective needs as clinical faculty, and our ideas for what it takes to be a great clinical program.  We had nine monthly clinic faculty meetings, focusing on such topics as clinical teaching, scholarship (clinical and traditional), supervisory rounds, and administrative issues and concerns.  We also held meetings with other units in the law school, thereby building bridges beyond the Clinic by opening lines of communication and encouraging collaboration with faculty from the Externship Program and the Writing, Learning, and Research Center as well as meeting with the staff from the Development Office to discuss fundraising for Clinical Programs via an electronic mail solicitation in the fall.

Initiatives that directly benefitted the sixty-five students participating in UNC’s Clinical Programs this year included an all-clinic case rounds session, which was introduced in the spring and will be repeated once/semester next year, and an end-of-year awards celebration and luncheon in which each faculty member spoke of the work their clinic students had accomplished and the Second Annual CLEA Outstanding Student Award was presented.    We also restructured our fall orientation meeting for students and our clinic informational and lottery meetings in the spring so that each faculty member addressed the group and a panel of current clinic students spoke about their experiences and took questions.

As for administration and staff, in July we hired a new program assistant who worked with our current program assistant under the supervision of our business manager to ensure that our program runs smoothly and efficiently.  We successfully implemented a new phone system, allowing for individual voicemail accounts for each student, and we abandoned our old intercom system.  Working in collaboration with Communications, our website has been updated (see http://www.law.unc.edu/academics/clinic/)  and the work of our clinic faculty and students was highlighted in the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Carolina Law alumni magazine, which focused on the ways in which the law school serves the people and communities of North Carolina.

In addition to the new initiatives described above, we have several other developments planned for the upcoming year. We recently began a Clinical Programs blog, which will serve as the primary source for a twice/annual electronic newsletter to be distributed to the UNC Law community as well as the national law school clinic listserv (see http://blogs.law.unc.edu/clinic/).  Also, we have partnered with faculty in the N.C. State University School of Social Work to serve as a field placement for an MSW student for the 2014-15 academic year.  We have hired a second year MSW student, who will be on site for 24 hours/week, primarily assisting law students in the Youth Justice Clinic with advocacy on behalf of children in the delinquency court and school disciplinary proceedings in which we appear.  We are also in the planning stages of refurbishing the clinical suite and are outfitting two of our rooms with video cameras that will record client interviews for both real-time viewing by faculty supervisors as well as subsequent review by students.

In short, we are building on the expansion of our Clinical Programs in recent years with initiatives that enhance the quality of the educational experience for our students and, as a result, the rigor with which we represent our clients.

5. Since 2004, have you cultivated a thorough hatred for Duke basketball?

I can answer that question with only four words: LET’S GO TAR HEELS!

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From Turkey Trot to Twitter: Policing Puberty, Purity, and Sex Positivity

quinnmProfessor Mae Quinn of Washington University in Saint Louis School of Law, who is an expert on criminal and juvenile justice system issues, has a new article that has just been posted to SSRN .  I look forward to reading it.

Here is the abstract:

From outward appearance, to physical presence, to intimate communications and engagements, young people have continually faced familial, community-based, and state-sponsored management of their most basic day-to-day actions and interactions. This obsession with policing puberty has, at times, reached the level of panic. This article seeks to examine this recurring phenomenon and suggests that adults find more productive ways to grapple with the teen identity formation process in this country.

It focuses on one particularly powerful panic-producing intersection of adolescence with American life – young girls and the big city. It describes reform efforts that took place in emerging urban centers at the turn of the last century, comparing them to the policing strategies that are taking place in our newest metropolis – the internet.

In doing so this article analyzes how the state has repeatedly worked to proscribe and prosecute a wide range of popular adolescent activities in the name of protecting youth from the dangers of modern life. It further argues that instead of providing a sense of security for young girls, such punitive actions often have sent mixed messages about intimacy and sexuality, discounted youthful and female agency, and unnecessarily attempted to prevent social change. In the end this article argues we should take some lessons from the failed efforts of the Progressive Era and respond differently to adolescent girls’ identity exploration in the 21st century.

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