Tamar Birckhead

Youth Workers Need to Be Alert to Juveniles Placed in Solitary

Sometimes it takes a tragic and heartrending story of a single human being to move broad public policy. In the instance of the solitary confinement of youth, the catalyst was the case of Kalief Browder. An African-American 16-yearold, Browder was wrongly charged with theft of a backpack in May 2010 and held for three years at Rikers Island after a judge set his bail at $3,000, an amount the teenager’s family could not post . . .

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Tamar Birckhead

Some Courts Recreating Debtors’ Prison

Across the U.S., even minor criminal charges can create insurmountable debt burdens for already-struggling families . . .

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Reflections on Miller v. Alabama: Roses, Thorns and Buds

To generate some (hopefully) meaningful conversation around our dinner table, I have begun to use a tool that my daughters picked up at one of their summer camps: “Rose, thorn and bud.” We each describe a good thing from our day (the rose), followed by a lousy thing (the thorn), and then conclude with something we are looking forward to (the bud). The exercise enables each person to share several different moments from the past 12 hours with the rest of the family; it doesn’t require too much effort or contemplation, and it . . .

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Suspecting Parents Doesn’t Protect Kids — Training and Partnership Do

In one of the North Carolina counties in which I practice law, juvenile delinquency court is held every other week. During these sessions, children who have been charged with criminal offenses come before the court to have their matters heard. In the alternating weeks, dependency court is held, during which the parents of children who are alleged to be abused, neglected or dependent have their matters heard.

The irony is that in the majority of cases nationwide, the children in these two forums are the same. In fact, a recent study has shown that approximately . . .

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Let’s Change How Police Question Young Suspects

When I had been practicing in North Carolina’s juvenile courts for about a year, I represented a client charged in the same case as a 13-year-old special-education student named J.D.B. I remember sitting in a large courtroom and watching J.D.B.’s public defender skillfully cross-examine a police investigator.

Weeks earlier, J.D.B. had been pulled out of his social studies class and brought to a school conference room where this same investigator had questioned him for nearly 45 minutes about a string of neighborhood burglaries. Although the assistant principal, an . . .

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Juvenile Hall is Often No Place for Kids

DURHAM, N.C. -- The local detention center where my juvenile clients are held while their cases are pending is called the “Youth Home.” The irony of the label is never lost on me, as the contrast between the name and the reality could hardly be starker. The rundown building is surrounded by barbed wire. Inside, kids sleep in narrow locked cells, no different from what you’d find in an adult jail. They are subjected to strip searches and attend an hour or two of “school” in a crowded room filled with a random selection of books. Juveniles are detained here for a variety of reasons.

Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles who Kill

In the 1993 book "Dead Man Walking", Sister Helen Prejean tells the story of people directly impacted by capital punishment – convicted murderers counting down to their own executions, wardens and guards dutifully operating the machinery of death, and victims who are consumed by rage and grief. Prejean’s book, upon which the popular movie was based, is much more than a memoir. Well-researched and annotated, it carefully explores the legal, ethical and philosophical issues raised by the most controversial form of punishment in the United States. But the power of the book comes from its candor – from the fact that Prejean began her journey without a clear perspective or opinion on the death penalty. I read "Dead Man Walking" when it was first published. I had recently graduated from law school and was clerking for an appellate court judge. Although only vaguely interested in criminal law, I finished it quickly, engrossed by Prejean’s account of her experiences as a spiritual adviser for men on death row and moved by her struggle to find common ground with the families of victims.
I thought of this last weekend after reading Ethan Bronner’s article in The New York Times on reactions to Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. With more than 2,000 offenders across the country who may be resentenced as a result of Miller, Bronner focused on a single case – a pregnant teen killed by her 15-year-old boyfriend – and prominently featured an interview with the victim’s sister, Bobbi Jamriska, who is active in the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. Unlike Prejean’s book, but typical of most coverage of criminal sentencing, the Times article explicitly pits juveniles serving life sentences against victims’ families; it asserts without attribution that the decision in Miller threw "thousands" like Jamriska into "anguished turmoil at the prospect that the killers of their loved ones may walk the streets again.” Such hyperbole only perpetuates the notion that the ideal resolution is always to warehouse young offenders – without opportunity for review of their sentences – forever. Yet, contrast this with a recent video from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, in which parents of murder victims express sympathy for juvenile offenders and, ultimately, forgiveness. One mother, Mary Johnson, related that it was healing to watch O’Shea Israel, the youth who had killed her son 20 years earlier, develop into a respectable adult after his release from prison. As the two stood side by side, Johnson explained, "He’s not that 16 year-old boy that has taken my son’s life.  He’s now a man. He’s turned his life around, and I know it’s genuine."

Building Bridges Instead of Walls

Growing up, I lived a short bike ride away from my grandmother.  An elementary school reading teacher, she was always a source of stability for me. When I would go to her with my problems – an argument with a friend, a disagreement with my mother – she would remind me to take a step back and try to build a bridge instead of a wall. With this lesson in mind, I do my best to have cordial interactions with everyone in the court system, though at times it can be trying.  Emotions fly, tempers flare and the inevitable happens: defense attorneys become annoyed by prosecutors, probation officers are frustrated with judges, and we all suffer the effects of working within an adversarial system. A couple of weeks ago, we had our annual panel of speakers from the local juvenile courts in the seminar that I teach each fall.  Judges, prosecutors and probation officers are invited to share their insights and experiences with our 24 third-year law students who defend children charged with crimes in delinquency court.