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.
I don’t know what words were exchanged between the judge and Sarah outside the courtroom, but I felt that I had just witnessed something special. A teenager had accepted responsibility for her actions, and the adults around her had responded with the right balance of solemnity and empathy. Sarah left knowing that her behavior was unacceptable and needed to change but that she wasn’t alone.
Although the hearing took place in an urban district court with a crowded docket, the judge devoted nearly 45 minutes of careful consideration to the matter. Sarah’s defense lawyer had been well-prepared and spoke effectively. Her caregivers were present and committed to their work. Sarah had an opportunity to speak and be heard.
Given my years in delinquency court, I knew that there would be further bumps along the road for her, but today, at least, Sarah’s experience in the juvenile justice system was a positive one.
The difficult question is whether this scenario can be replicated for other children. Like many juveniles, Sarah is caught up in both dependency and delinquency courts, and while these systems are not – and never will be – perfect, she is seemingly being helped. At 14, it is unlikely that she will ever be formally adopted into a family, but it’s possible that she can gain the life skills needed to become a productive member of the community.
Through practicing, teaching, and writing in this area, I have found that it’s easy to focus on everything that is wrong with juvenile court – and there is, admittedly, a lot in that category. Perhaps if we try harder to identify what is right about the system – or at least instances in which cases go particularly well – we can more effectively find models that work.
The principle lesson learned from Sarah’s case is the necessity of having an adequate block of time for each disposition. In my experience, at least 30 minutes is the minimum amount needed for a judge to gain a sense of a child, to hear from her caregivers, and to forge a connection. Will this be challenging for busy juvenile courts with limited personnel and budgetary constraints? Yes, of course, it will. Is it worth it? One needs only to glimpse Sarah’s smile as she left the courtroom to know the answer.
Tamar Birckhead is an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a criminal defense attorney with more than 20 years of experience. She is a faculty supervisor of the UNC Juvenile Justice Clinic, an academic program in which third-year law students defend children charged with criminal offenses in juvenile delinquency court.