Q&A: Juvenile Judge Irene Sullivan, Part One

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In 1998, Irene Sullivan took a seat on the Florida Circuit Court’s Unified Family Court in Pinellas County after two decades in corporate law. Her new territory turned out to be just as foreign to her as it sounds.

"She was so amazed and astonished as to what she didn't know," said friend and colleague Jack Levine, founder of Florida advocacy organization 4Generations Institute. "She had had no contact with certain elements in the lives of some of these kids."

Sullivan spent the next decade handling child welfare and juvenile justice cases – she never opted to rotate out of family court. Her new book, Raised by the Courts: One Judge’s Insight into Juvenile Justice, was published in November. She’s hinted she may write a similar book after her experiences with the child welfare system.  

Of the myriad books on juvenile justice and other youth issues, many are good resources; few are actually good reads. This is one. It could prove to be a momentum-building force of publishing along the lines of Ken Wooden’s “Weeping in the Playtime of Others.”

Sullivan combines accounts of her court experiences with well-researched information about juvenile justice strategies that are working around the country. Readers will get a healthy dose of what Florida’s system is like; other parts of the book focus on broad subjects such as detention reform, disproportionate minority contact and substance abuse.  

She is at her best when recounting personal anecdotes and delivering candid opinions, not all of which will be popular with the average progressive-minded reformist bloc.

All the while, Sullivan manages to incorporate statistics and program descriptions without bogging down the flow of her narrative. The technique is crucial for spreading her message. There is a finite universe of people who will even try to read a dense, data-packed tome on juvenile justice.

That’s not to say Sullivan’s writing will land her at the top of the best-sellers list. But because of her fluid style, it’s more likely that Raised by the Courts makes it into the hands of some influential readers who otherwise would not pay attention to juvenile justice.

It appears that might already have happened in her home state. New Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) named Sullivan to his Law and Order Transition Team as he prepped for his inauguration. Sullivan is an unabashed fan of Wansley Walters, whose efforts as juvenile justice director in Miami-Dade County were the subject of an entire chapter in her book.

Scott’s choice to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice? He announced his appointment of Walters in December.

“This thing made its way to people making decisions in the new administration,” Levine said of the book. He said Scott’s call on DJJ leadership was a combination of  “Wansley’s credentials and the spotlight Irene put on her in the book.”

Sullivan officially retired from the bench in December, which provides her more freedom to speak candidly about youth policies and endeavors. She agreed to a phone interview  with Youth Today on Martin Luther King Day, and let us pepper her with juvenile justice questions.

Below is part one of our interview. An exclusive except from Raised by the Courts will be posted on Thursday. The second part of our interview with Sullivan will be posted on Friday.  

YT: Where do you see the biggest points of inefficiency in the juvenile justice system, where superior technology might increase the ability of workers to do more with kids and spend less time on administrative work?

IS: Better communication, even just through e-mail, between commitment programs and local school districts, so there isn’t a waiting time for when they get [re-enrolled]. I’m not sure if that’s better technology or just better communication.

Youth Today: You state emphatically in the book that marijuana should never be legalized because “it is the most dangerous gateway drug for kids to use.”

Let us play devil’s advocate on that for a moment. Recent research about juveniles found that 85 percent of serious offenders report smoking marijuana. More teens in general report smoking marijuana than cigarettes.

Would you agree that the illicit nature of marijuana sales has not stopped it from becoming what you describe? And if that’s the case, why is a government-sanctioned market with the potential for safer drugs and some treatment-directed revenue NOT a better option than what we have?

Irene Sullivan: That’s always a very difficult question. It would be simple to experiment totally the other way for 10 years and compare. My point, and I’ve received criticism for this, is I think it would make it even more accessible if it was legal.

What I see in court with drug charges… with coke, [juveniles are] mostly selling it; it’s easy to get $20 dollars again and again. With marijuana, they may be selling, but they’re also using it. And for self-medication lot of times.

They become slacker-soldiers: they can’t get jobs, they can’t speak right, their minds are mixed up. They’re sloppy, slouchy, and positive for marijuana. These kids’ brains are still developing, still formative. To put a potent drug in their brain can create life-long problems.

But if you showed me by legalizing, there would be less [under-18] use, I’d say, do it. Legalize it.

YT: The Supreme Court will take up a case in March that could set some boundaries on police questioning of juvenile suspects on school grounds. From your experience, do you think youths are sometimes getting pushed into making statements against their interests, who might feel because it’s school grounds that they aren’t able to walk out of a questioning?

IS:  Yes.  

YT: What is your view on including juveniles on the sex offender registry? You say “almost never” in the book, what do you feel is an appropriate threshold there?

IS: Situational. It’s age, and it’s record. Certainly, repeat sexual offenses should be considered. But I’d still say almost no [juvenile]offenders should be on it. So much of it is kids imitating what mom’s doing with mom’s boyfriends. You got strangers running through the house in their underwear. [Youths with] raging hormones. They’re just reacting to natural teen feelings in unsupervised settings. They’re exposed to porn, they’re sexually abused.

I’ve seen very, very few, maybe two, where I thought, ‘There’s a sex offender.’ Most, the vast majority, are not sex offenders.

YT: The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization would have phased out the exception for valid court orders with status offenders. [Click here for more on the VCO]. What is your take on the VCO, do you use it ever? If not, is that a philosophical thing? Are there times when you think being securely detained is probably the best thing for a status offender?

IS: It’s one of those things where I can’t say I would never lock up a status offender. The state has generally moved towards community options, which has made the waiting list for those services longer than the one for residential. Because our resources are so short, with…a longer wait for community-based drug treatment. That’s very sad, because then the tendency by a judge is to say ‘Gosh, the only way this kid will get service is to commit him.’ So there is a lot of pressure to consider commitment to stop the violations.

YT: How much interaction did you have with OJJDP as a judge?

IS: Just about none. Only time I would is at a conference, or when [former Administrator J. Robert] Flores maybe would come speak to a conference here. That’s about it. It’s kind of a shame.

Tomorrow: A must-read excerpt from Judge Sullivan’s book, “Raised by the Courts”

Friday: Part Two of our interview with Judge Sullivan