Transforming the ‘Bench Box’ Judge

Judge Steven TeskeI am a reformist who happens to be a judge. 

I came to this realization when introduced as a “reformer” at a recent Houston gathering of politicians, judges, clergy and juvenile justice stakeholders. I was invited to share some insights into the collaborative process of building effective juvenile justice systems at the local level — a judicially led process.

The number of judicially led reforms at the local level is growing, but many judges still resist this trend despite the successful outcomes. The key to their success is inherent in the role of the judge. A coordinated stakeholder system is essential to the delivery of services, but getting them to the table requires someone strategically connected to all stakeholders — the judge. Judges are the traffic cops of the juvenile justice system because all stakeholders intersect at the juvenile court.

The judge is the most powerful influence in shaping local juvenile justice systems and conversely can be the greatest obstacle. Those judges resisting this next generation of judicial leadership remain stuck in the “Bench Box,” a syndrome of judicial traditionalism that the role of the judge is limited to due process in the courtroom.  

For others it’s the politics of fear, the concern that people will perceive the system reform as “soft on crime” or other untruths. Whether stuck in tradition, a fear of the politics, or an exaggerated interpretation of the canon’s exhortation to avoid any appearance of bias and conflict, the position that judges have no role in system reform is a misplaced priority that is damaging to our kids and communities.

The key to transforming a Bench Box judge comes down to one simple truth shared by fellow JJIE contributor John Lash in his op-ed “We Are All Anarchists at Heart” — “The changes that last will come when people start to take responsibility for themselves and their communities.”

The key question in any juvenile justice reform effort is: “How do we bring the anarchist out of the judge?”

The good news is I have not met a judge who doesn’t care, only some judges who haven’t found their anarchist side. To the surprise of some, judges are people too. They come in different shapes and sizes, but not one in all my travels has rejected the call to step outside the “Bench Box.” Some have jumped out, others have stepped out with one foot, and a few have climbed the wall and stood on the edge and led from there. Whatever works for them to influence change to improve their system is what matters in the end.

One thing is for sure — statewide reform, if done right, can influence the anarchist soul buried in most of us to surface. The key toward successful implementation of statewide juvenile justice reform depends on what takes place at the local level, and that requires judicial leadership. If a statewide initiative stands the chance of success, it must emphasize more local influence over programs, processes and resources.

When reform provides more funding at the local level and simultaneously requires more discretion in how the funds are used, judicial leadership is no longer discretionary, it becomes a necessity.

The truth is, judicial leadership off the bench should be motivated by what we do on the bench. And it shouldn’t take statewide reform to motivate us, but some of us need some nudging to awaken the anarchist inside us.

Every order I sign is owned by me, no one else. When I order a kid to a program, how much do I know about its effectiveness? When I order a kid to detention, how much do I know about the conditions of confinement? It’s not good enough to say, “I care,” yet hide in my Bench Box and never question the programs and places I send my kids.  

When we question what isn’t working, we place ourselves in a position to do something about it and that may require judicial activism off the bench to repair what is broken.

Fixing a broken system is not easy, it takes time, it is a work in progress. But one thing is certain, it requires every key stakeholder to work together in their community.

But stakeholders need a traffic cop, someone who is systemically situated to bring them together. It is time for the anarchist to be revealed, a time to break loose from the Bench Box.


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