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The Juvenile Justice System

 

By the Honorable Cynthia Jordan

 

During the majority of my adult life I have worked in professions dealing with children and issues relating to children initially as a teacher, then as an attorney practicing in juvenile and family court and now as a judge. Over the years I have made observations that have lead me to the conclusion that we need to make our children a priority and provide them with the resources needed to make them into responsible adults.

 

Anyone watching the news is aware of the increase in violence among young people these days. The incidents of school shootings have cut across all economic levels from the wealthy suburb in Littleton , Colorado , to the small reservation town of Redlake , Minnesota . The reasons for the shootings and violence vary from one incident to the next but the one common factor seems to be that each of the individuals involved have been isolated from their peers. No one seems to have noticed that his or her individual needs were not being met on some fundamental level prior to the violence. Unfortunately these incidents have spawned fear in the general public that has led to legal reform where children are tried as adults at younger and younger ages. The result has been that more children are being locked up at younger ages for life sentences with no hope of parole.

 

Recent scientific research has shown that the adolescent brain is not developed in the area that controls impulse. Because these incidents are usually impulsive acts this certainly suggests that these young offenders can be rehabilitated as they mature. It saddens me to see us throw away a segment of our youthful population who could be reformed and turned into responsible and productive citizens. This does not mean that punishment should be withheld; on the contrary, punishment is an essential part of correcting behavior. However an all or nothing approach is also not the answer. We as a society should be looking at each situation and fashioning a remedy which incorporates punishment with rehabilitation, especially with juvenile offenders.

 

When a family is brought before me either through a youth in need of care proceeding or a delinquency case, I generally try to obtain as much information about the family as I can. I look for drug and alcohol issues not just for the juvenile but for the parents and or siblings as well. When it is time for the disposition in a delinquency case I try to fashion the punishment in such a way as to include both rehabilitative elements and punitive elements. For example if a minor is charged and convicted of possession of tobacco I will require an essay on the dangers of smoking along with any detention time, fine, or community service. Similarly, if it is a minor in consumption case I will require an essay on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; if available a victim's panel where they can learn the devastation of an alcohol-related accident. In this way I hope a seed of information will be planted which will enable them to make better choices. If there are victims from the crime I will always require restitution and sometimes community service to reinforce the fact that the actions of each individual affect the community as a whole.

 

In a youth in need of care case we try to fashion a program of services aimed at correcting or alleviating the problems with the family. These cases come before the court when a family is in crisis. The way the court system is set up is very adversarial, the social services caseworkers remove the child or children from the home and then the parents are expected to work with social services to complete the recommended services in order to get their children back. Unfortunately, most of the time the traumatic removal of the children does not facilitate a good working relationship between the parents and the caseworker. We have tried to do a kinder gentler approach in court. Since counsel does not represent most of the parents in these cases, I generally try to give them broad leeway to present their concerns and complaints to the court. I try to explain everything to them in clear terms and we have frequent review hearings in order to assess the plan and the progress made by the family. I generally try to foster a more casual atmosphere in the courtroom and try to make the review hearings a time for all parties to have a say in where we go next although I am the final decision maker. In the last year we have enjoyed a certain amount of success in reuniting families, however, if it becomes obvious that the parent isn't going to change then we are starting to work alternative permanent plans so that the child does not languish in foster care for too long of time. In my court we do a lot of concurrent planning, working both to reunite the family and to promote a permanent home for the child in case the family can't be reunited.

 

What I see most of the time in these cases is parents who are drug/alcohol dependent or who have subjected their children to abuse or neglect. In many ways the systemic neglect of the children is the main problem. Most of the parents do not have any idea how to parent and a very limited understanding of child development. Therefore it is a given that parenting classes and information about child development will be included in any court order issued in this case. In Tribal court we also encourage extended family involvement. We also stress participation in cultural activities for the family, the hope is that they will be enriched by having that connection to their roots and culture and will become a better parent for the child.

 

In my opinion we as a society need to do more for our children. Unfortunately children have no voice in our society and therefore are usually at the bottom of our priorities. Usually we are burdened with too few resources and too much need. It does not help when our school systems are burdened with unfounded mandates such as the "No Child Left Behind Act". We need to become serious about providing a good education, good health care, good daycare and basic living standards to all of our children. We need to pay attention to the quiet students and give each child a sense of self worth. We need to take some of the pressure off of the children and let them be children. I have always been an optimist and I know that if we all work together we can make a difference in the lives of our children, but first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem and make it a priority to fix it. 

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