Taking the Time to Make Juvenile Court Work

Juvenile and Domestic Court, Warrenton, Virginia

The title of this post is the title of my latest op-ed at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.  It opens like this:

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.

“Thank you for sharing that,” the judge told her softly.  “We want you to find the right way to handle your anger so we can get you the help you deserve.  You need to let other people in and not to push them out.”

Sarah’s lawyer put his arm around her shoulder.  Her probation officer handed her a tissue.  The judge announced that she was accepting the probation officer’s recommendations and that Sarah would remain on the same conditions of probation that had been imposed months earlier.  A review date was set for the next month.

As the hearing concluded, the judge spoke once more.  “Sarah,” she said, “nobody’s giving up on you.”  Then the judge asked to meet with the girl in the corridor.

The court officer announced a brief recess, and when Sarah returned ten minutes later, she was no longer crying.  As she joined her lawyer and caregivers, the judge called after her, “Don’t forget what I said.  I will see you again soon.”  Sarah turned toward the judge and smiled.

You may read the rest here.

Photo via Jason Pier.  License details here.

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About Tamar Birckhead

This entry was posted in Advocacy, Criminal /Juvenile Defense, Delinquency, Juvenile Court, Juveniles, Sentencing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Taking the Time to Make Juvenile Court Work

  1. Eric Zogry says:

    Great article and observations. Sometimes we do need to sit back and appreciate what’s right about what were doing, or at least trying to do.

  2. I practice in juvenile court in northern California. In my opinion we need more judges here in tune with children’s needs. Too often bench officers treat children as “junior criminals” on their inevitable way to prison. It sounds like you have a good judge there.

    I am curious about the apparent ex parte communication with the minor. Was her attorney present while the judge counseled her?

    • tbirckhe says:

      Yes, she is a wonderful judge — very committed to the kids and always makes a point to distinguish between the offense and the child. Great question about the ex parte communication — the attorney was not present, which is not something I’d typically support, but with this judge, it makes sense — whenever she asks to speak alone to the child, it’s at the end of the hearing after disposition has been entered, and her private words with the youth are always encouraging and supportive.