‘Kiddie Court’ Is No Joke to Juveniles

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Tamar-Birckhead-new-head-shotA 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 families. 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.

Tamar. R. Birckhead is associate professor of law and the director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina School of Law whose research on the juvenile court intake process was published in the Fall 2013 Texas Tech Law Review.