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A Question of Justice – Juvenile Justice Gone Awry

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Our daughter forwarded us an editorial in The New York Times on juvenile justice in the United States “12 and in Prison” that notes that trying juveniles as adults is “terrible public policy.” Children sentenced as adults are more likely to become repeat violent offenders and The New York Times calls for Congress to cause the States “to simply end these inhumane practices to be eligible for federal juvenile justice funds.” The editorial could more simply advocate putting “justice” back into the nation’s juvenile justice system.

This summer our daughter, a law student at New York University, interned in New Orleans helping represent children caught in the city’s juvenile justice system. Some of the stories she tells are horrendous – there’s a culture of violence in New Orleans that is difficult to understand and accept. Kids have access to guns; young teenagers steal cars, sell drugs, commit armed robberies, and worse. Police stop children without apparent cause. They use vehicles to knock kids off their bikes – bikes are often used as getaway vehicles. There are horrible stories and there are two sides. But what I got from her stories is that the kids do not expect justice and have an attitude that what they do doesn’t matter because they will be hassled anyway and the police, in a similar mind-set, suspect that most children in certain areas are engaged in some criminal activity.

Kate believes in Justice with a capital “J” and she did not go to New Orleans with a mindset that the justice system is broken. She was however in the midst of it and I wasn’t happy that she saw the underside of American Life. It sucks, to put it bluntly. It is sad that lives are lost either literally or figuratively.

In its op-ed, The New York Times sites a study by Michele Deitch of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin From Time Out to Hard Time – Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System. Deitch begins her study with the case of pre-teen Christopher Pittman who suffered from depression and was placed on Paxil. When his doctor ran out of the drug, the doctor gave a sample package of Zoloft. Immediately, relatives noticed a change in behavior. Trying to control the boy, his grandparents, threatened to paddle him. Later Christopher killed them in their sleep with a shotgun that had been a gift from his father and set fire to their house. The South Carolina juvenile justice system tried him as an adult. The case was complex due to the use of Zoloft and this child, who was 12 at the time of the murders and who had no history of delinquency, was sentenced to 30 years in jail with no chance of parole.

In South Carolina as in other states, fighting crime has become political with the result that our justice system is punitive and not reformative. And in many areas the juvenile justice system is nothing more than a juvenile control system.

How do we change all this? Kate knew of the inadequacies of our justice system and she chose to intern at Juvenile Regional Services in New Orleans, an overworked underfunded agency to help defend children caught in the system. In one of the cases she was assigned she was able to do the research, meet with the 14 year old client who was in jail, write arguments and working with the lead attorney, help prove the evidence to be insufficient and tainted. NYU paid her to do this work – about 1/10 the amount many interns receive in our corporate law firms. One case and there’s many more. In the case of Christopher Pittman, the University of Texas study notes that “Christopher is believed to be serving the longest sentence in the country, if not the world, for a crime committed at such a young age.”

The implications of recent research into the adolescent brain is striking. The American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice System reported in Cruel and Unusual Punishment The Juvenile Death Penalty – Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability sites research by Elizabeth Sowell, UCLA, that frontal lobe is the last to develop and even though adolescents are fully capable in other areas, they cannot reason as well as adults. The brain continues to develop into the early 20′s. The report notes that the frontal lobe governs judgment, impulsivity, future planning, “foresight of consequences,” that make people “morally capable” and notes further that “age 21 or 22 would be closer to the ‘biological’ age of maturity.” (Dr. Ruben C. Gur, neuropsychologist and Director of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania quoted in “Cruel and Unusual Punishment…” )

You can help by supporting organizations such as the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana whose mission is “to transform the juvenile justice system into one that builds on the strengths of young people, families and communities in order to instill hope and to ensure children are given the greatest opportunities to grow and thrive.”

Stay mindful with regard to justice – advocate for district attorneys and judges who themselves are advocates for juvenile justice, who believe in redemption and are willing to work for it. I am not advocating that we “go easy” – I believe that we must extend a hand that is both firm and fair. Minimally, I advocate for treating children whose minds are not developed as beings in need of our assistance.

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This article was written by stanford