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.

The two-hour conversation had an intensity I had not felt in past years. One judge spoke of her belief that no other forum in the criminal justice system was more important than juvenile court.  She told of a case that had made a lasting impression – four 14-year-old boys were charged with felony breaking and entering into a residence and several counts each of injury to personal and real property.

The judge showed us photos of the destruction the teens had wrecked – broken windows, furniture turned upside down, clothing and other possessions dumped on the floor. The boys had urinated on the beds and had scrawled racial epithets and swastikas on the walls of the children’s room. After admitting to the offenses in juvenile court, the teenagers were stone-faced, showing no signs of remorse.

Then it was time for disposition and the victim’s opportunity to speak. A carefully dressed woman who took pride in her home, she turned to the boys who were all looking away. Minutes passed.  Folks sitting in the courtroom started to grumble, angry with the juveniles and impatient to see them punished. When the boys finally met her gaze, she uttered only three words: “I forgive you.”

The judge shared how the woman’s compassion released a torrent of emotion in the young men – first tears, then expressions of regret. We talked about juvenile court’s emphasis on accountability as well as forgiveness and about its potential to effect change.

During the second half of the panel discussion, the conversation turned to the economy and the impact that the downturn has had on the resources available to juveniles. One probation officer spoke about long-term detention facilities (also called youth development centers or YDCs) – the secure institutions where young people are committed for terms of at least six months.

“Detention centers don’t change behaviors,” the officer told us, “but they may modify them.” He emphasized the critical need for transitional residences to house youth after they are released from YDCs and before they are returned to their families. At one time these “multipurpose homes,” located in rural areas of the state, provided small groups of kids with a treatment-oriented, community-based program for up to 12 months.  Yet they were closed with a recent round of state budget cuts, and nothing has replaced them.

Without the option of programs to assist young people with the reentry process, the officer explained, some kids act out in an effort to extend their stay at the YDC. They deliberately violate rules of the facility – even to the point of assaulting someone – because they know they’re not yet ready to leave and face the temptations of the street. For others, the prison-like setting provides the basics they would otherwise lack – electricity, hot water, and reliable meals – and gives them a rare opportunity to relax and feel like kids.

A student raised her hand and spoke about her experiences assisting adults in reentry programs in New York. The probation officer suggested that she attend a meeting with him and others to discuss transitional alternatives for juveniles in North Carolina.  She readily agreed.

Earlier that day, I had been worried that the panel discussion would not go well – that conversation would be stilted or students would lose interest. The class meets in the late afternoon, when it’s not easy to stay alert and engaged. But my concerns had been unwarranted.

As I packed up my papers at the close of the session, several folks lingered to continue talking. A prosecutor spoke animatedly and gave out her email address. A student announced that she wished there were more time because she still had questions. A probation officer hugged me.

I was somewhat stunned. Here we had gathered together, listened to each other and made connections. Although we fulfill very different roles in the juvenile court system and often disagree, for a couple of hours we set all that aside.

My grandmother would have been proud.

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.

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