In the aftermath of the deadly shooting last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., intense public debate has focused on protecting students – and the role of student resource officers (SROs), in particular – in the event of future shooting sprees.
Generally, school resource officers are local law enforcement officers appointed to patrol schools and handle juvenile disciplinary issues. The effectiveness of SROs is highly debated. A National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) report claims the presence of SROs has reduced juvenile arrests in some schools by nearly 50 percent. On the other hand, the Justice Policy Institute issued a report that found SROs had little effect on curbing criminal activity in schools, and may even lead to inflated, and potentially unnecessary, juvenile arrests.
In a recent letter to CNN, NASRO President Kevin Quinn stated that SROs might save countless lives in a potential school shooting scenario.
“We are immediate first responders for any and all critical incidents on campus, whether it’s an intruder, a student fight or a health emergency,“ he wrote. “Having a police officer on the campus can eliminate several minutes of response time when seconds count. I know the school like the back of my hand, and if there’s a problem, I don’t need a map. I can respond in the time it takes me to get down the hall.”
However, an op-ed by Judge Steven Teske appearing recently on JJIE argues that the multifaceted duties requested of SROs may impede them from actually being present at the school in the case of a shooting incident.
“A misuse of police officers on campus will not protect the campus from another massacre,“ Teske wrote. “It will likely take the officer off the campus due to the high incident of misdemeanor arrests and allow for many to die in the wake of a deranged gunman’s wave of bullets.”
Teske continued: “God forbid there is another shooting and the media asks this one question: ‘Where was your SRO when the shooting began?’ The answer: ‘At juvenile court booking a kid for a schoolyard fight.’”
Although media attention of school resource officers increased following last month’s shooting, for the last three years, JJIE has been covering the issue with numerous features and op-eds.
- JJIE's New York Bureau chief, Daryl Khan, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, wrote about the effect of school safety police in New York City schools. Many argue they have created a prison-like atmosphere in the schools.
- The Chicago Bureau’s Alex Nitkin, with contributions from Gideon Resnick and Jenny Starrs, wrote about school resource officers, particularly policies in Illinois schools, in an article published late last year.
- Juvenile defender Cheryl Cutting wrote about effectiveness of school resource officers in a Dec. 5, 2011 op-ed, arguing that their presence leads to an increase in arrests for disruptive behaviors that, in most schools, would only warrant in-school disciplinary actions.
- In an article from Oct. 2011, Chandra Thomas -Whitfield writes about a young boy in Georgia that committed suicide after being harassed by his classmates. The boy’s sister said that SROs did little to address accusations of bullying following his suicide. “She says last year a boy in her class repeatedly teased her about her brother’s death,” Whitfield writes. “Her mom says she filed charges with the school resource officer but the school never responded.”
- “Should teachers carry concealed guns in school?” asked Ellen Miller in a Jan. 25, 2011 article. She brings up the Harrold Independent School District in Texas, which in lieu of school resource officers, allows teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms.
- A Dec. 9, 2010 op-ed written by Judge Steven Teske explored the topic of school resource officers, in particular the phenomenon of increased referrals for misdemeanors.
“We had data reflecting an increase in referrals by over 1,000 percent since the inception of the SRO program in the mid nineties,” he stated.
- Are hamburgers better protected than school children? Ken Trump addresses the need for tighter security measures, including school resource officers, in an op-ed penned in Sept. 2010.
- Chandra Thomas-Whitfield interviewed Aaron Kupchik, author of “Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear,” in Sept. 2010. “In a peaceful school, there should be more counselors and less police officers,” Kupchik argues. “A police officer can’t create a completely safe space for children to talk. For one, they’ve been trained to respond differently and if they learn of a criminal act they have to act on that.”
Photo by Robert Stolarik.
During my testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights last month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman and majority whip, asked me if I am in favor of police on school campuses. To the dismay of some of my friends who stand by my side in this fight to dismantle the "school-to-prison pipeline," I answered a qualified yes. Police on campus, I explained, must be specially trained in adolescent development, crisis intervention and fostering positive relationships with students.
Two days later, a deranged shooter entered the campus of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. killing 20 children and six adults.
Now, the aftermath debate includes placing police on every campus. This issue is reserved for my friends in the other branches of government, but as a judge I am concerned. If police are placed on campus without written protocols defining their role, the results will be disastrous -- just as removing existing police from campus can have unintended consequences.
These friends are adamant that the "simple" solution to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline is the removal of police from campus. This "simple" solution assumes that police are the cancerous cause of the significant spike in the number of low-level offenses.
At first blush my friends seem to have a valid point—the greater the police presence, the greater the risk for arrest. This greater risk does not bode well for most kids because they are wired to do stupid things. Kids are under neurological construction and require the time for maturation.
This logic assumes that it's the police who have interest in arresting students for school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school. I have visited, along with my technical assistance team supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), many localities from California to Massachusetts to Florida and as far north as Montana and North Dakota, and can positively state that the vast majority of campus police are frustrated with their role. They desire a mission statement with clear objectives, the first being that they are not disciplinarians to be used and abused by school administrators.
I have many police testimonies but will share a recent visit to Broward County, Fla. that is typical of my encounters with school police across the nation. The presiding juvenile judge in Broward County, Judge Elijah Williams, read my articles on school-justice partnerships and developed a stakeholders’ group to develop an agreement to reduce low risk school arrests.
Juvenile court judges are integral players in bringing stakeholders together to develop innovative strategies that can benefit children and the community. This convening power of the judge has proven a key factor in the success of replicating protocols similar to my court, now referred to as the "Positive Student Engagement Model for School Policing."
Broward County was no exception. Judge Williams invited me and Clayton County Police Lieutenant Francisco Romero to Ft. Lauderdale in September 2012 to present the model to the stakeholders. Lt. Romero, a veteran school resource officer, helped me implement our model in 2004. His experiences bring examples of positive student engagement, how developing a relationship with students opens the door of communication and, in turn, sharing of information that prevents weapons and drugs from entering the campus -- not to mention solving crimes in the community, including murder. (What kids hear over the weekend they bring to school on Monday!) Gathering police intelligence requires a positive relationship with students.
During the presentation, the audience of law enforcement displayed the typical stoic demeanor -- no expression. They are difficult to read and if I were a poker player I would refrain from playing with my law enforcement friends. When we concluded, Judge Williams took the podium and asked this question: "By a show of hands, how many would agree to a protocol that prohibits you from arresting a student for any non-violent misdemeanor offense, including possession, not sale.”
They all raised their hands!
The stoic looks were replaced by animated hand gestures with frustrated facial expressions. They spewed opposition to the disciplinarian role school administrators demand. A role oftentimes expected of police by virtue of their presence on campus. A role that has led to SRO's referred to as "Sorry Road Officers" or "Kiddie Cops."
These derogatory descriptions are false for the many trained school resource officers who have chosen to work with adolescents. I refer you to Mo Cannady, director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). School policing is a specialized field of police work, no different than SWAT, narcotics, DUI Task Force and other areas requiring specialized training.
Any system that relegates a trained and certified peace officer to the role of student disciplinarian is exercising very poor administrative judgment. The disciplinarian role does not require someone with peace officer certification carrying handcuffs and a firearm. That would make them overqualified for the job. A misuse of police officers on campus will not protect the campus from another massacre. It will likely take the officer off the campus due to the high incident of misdemeanor arrests and allow for many to die in the wake of a deranged gunman's wave of bullets.
God forbid there is another shooting and the media asks this one question: "Where was your SRO when the shooting began?" The answer: "At juvenile court booking a kid for a schoolyard fight."
It's not good enough if the SRO calls a road officer from the street to transport the student--it now cuts down the response time for a robbery, burglary, or serious assault in progress.
Major Miguel A. Martinez of the Hallandale Beach Police Department in Broward County, Fla. summed it up: “If the only tool is a cop – than every problem is a crime.”
SRO's were removed from the middle schools in my county to cut costs after the economic downturn. The arrest of middle school students drastically increased. Administrators simply called 911 and got a road officer, untrained in adolescent development.
Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.
The first Georgia After School and Youth Development Conference is taking place in Athens, Ga. January 9 – 11. The event was organized by GUIDE, Gwinnet United in Drug Education, Inc., and supported by the state’s Department of Human Services, the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and the Department of Education. I was fortunate to be able to attend part of the conference on Thursday, and to sit down with a few of the presenters.
The focus of the conference, embodied in the theme “Together towards Tomorrow,” is a set of unified standards for after school and summer programs that will enable the government, providers, and grant makers to make decisions based on the latest evidence about what really works. Collaboratively developed by several government and nonprofit agencies over nearly a year, the standards are comprised of eight Quality Elements:
- Programming and Activities
- Linkages with the School Day
- Health, Nutrition and Physical Fitness
- Environment and Climate
- Relationships, Culture and Diversity
- Staffing and Professional Development
- Organizational Practices
- Evaluation and Outcomes
Each of these elements are viewed as important in developing programs that are engaging, mesh with and support school activities, develop skills outside the scope of the school curriculum and that rely on evidence-based practices and measurable outcomes of targeted traits.
Thursday morning Judge Steven Teske (a frequent contributor to JJIE) spoke to the gathering about the innovative approach Clayton County has taken to reduce the number of kids declared delinquent. A big part of his talk focused on the negative outcomes of youth involvement with police and courts. The deeper into the system the kid goes, from handcuffing to incarceration, the odds of dropping out of school and participating in future crimes goes up.
Another speaker I was able to sit down with was Jill Riemer, Executive Director of the Georgia Afterschool Investment Council. GAIC is a nonprofit whose mission is to increase the quality and availability of after school programs around the state. They serve as a resource for programs of all types, and provide networking, training, curriculum development, and other assistance.
GAIC played a role in the creation of the state wide standards and Jill was excited to see the level of energy that was palpable among attendees. There are thousands of programs around the state and it is difficult to track what they do and how effective they are. The common standards are a huge step towards increasing the effectiveness of programs and allowing those with the mission of supporting such programs a way to decide where and how to invest their resources.
Now the concern for kids that motivates so many of those who attended the conference will be augmented by tools that will help them select what really works.
We are fortunate living in the land of the "free and the brave"—to exercise freedoms others only dream of. And many have money in their pockets to feed their family. Is it because we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world that we take economics for granted when it comes to criminal and juvenile justice issues? And that by spending more money to build prisons we can jail our way to safety?
When my Mom accused me of wrongdoing—most I did, but some I did not—the feeling of anger would rise up in me during those few and far between innocent moments. With a self-righteous tone I would blurt out "I am innocent. You're not fair!" My Mom was quick to say that she learned just enough law to know that the Constitution did not apply to her unreasonable searches and seizures, bias decisions and unfair inquisitions.
When that didnt work, I pulled out the guilt gun and shot her with the "But Mom—I would'nt lie. Don't you trust me?"
"It has nothing to do with trust," she would say. "I care enough for you not to trust you completely."
My Mom's theory that absolute trust destroys relationships has proven to be a fact of life for me and for others. Whether as a parent or spouse, believing that loving someone and complete trust are the same will in time result in taking our loved one for granted—that they will never lie to us, cheat on us, or take advantage of us. When we think, talk and act this way, we take for granted their love and become lazy. We stop asking questions of our kids when they don't come home on time, or don't bring their friends by the house.
Many times in court parents exclaim with the same indignation I showed my Mom. "My baby would never do that!" they say. Yeah—tell my Mom that!
For years we have heard just enough policymakers and political pundits tell us that we must get tough on crime. So, we build prisons for adults and kids. We have been doing it for so long its become a way of life—like a tradition. Like our love for our spouse or kids, we trust our way of life and believe there is no need to question that which we trust. So we take it for granted and make incarceration the answer to criminal justice.
We take incarceration for granted to such an extent that we pump millions of dollars into the youth and adult prison construction industry and we call it an investment thinking we get a good return in community safety. But, do we?
Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice is budgeted $300 million of which nearly two-thirds is used to operate out of home facilities. It can cost more than $90,000 per bed per year. What's the investment? More than half are convicted within three years of release.
Some respond "that's not bad considering these are the hard core kids who are difficult to rehabilitate."
Wrong. Over half of the facilities are filled with low risk youth, misdemeanants and status offenders. Our youth prisons--the razor wire facilities--include 39 percent low risk and 37 percent medium risk youth.
The irrefutable research shows that placing low risk youth alongside high risk youth will turn low risk youth into serious high risk delinquents. Yet, the general public believes otherwise because they trust the system. Tey take for granted that the millions invested in youth facilities are protecting the community.
Georgia is not alone. Many states mirror the inefficient use of taxpayers monies when it comes to troubled youth.
As I understand the concept of investment, I doubt our juvenile justice systems would last long if it were publicly traded on the stock market.
Recently, my court was visited by a group from our State Advisory Group, Governor's Office for Children and Families, to conduct a site visit and review the status of an alternative "deep-end" program we call "Second Chance." These kids were facing up to five years in a youth prison.
In attendance were five graduates of the program: armed robbery with a gun, robbery by force, attempted murder and aggravated assault cases. A couple of these kids were facing a mandatory minimum of 20 years in adult court.
They told their story of redemption, of being snatched from the jaws of prison and being delivered into a world of surveillance, cognitive restructuring, family counseling, after-school programming, community service, multi-systemic therapy, drug counseling and getting their high school diploma. Today they are employed and in college or entering the military.
As I heard their testimonies, I did the math. At a cost of $90,000 annually to house each kid is $450,000. The recommendation for each kid at sentencing was three years. That's a cost savings to the state of $1,350,000. It cost us only $40,000. That's a cost savings of $1,310,000.
Let's not forget that, if committed, four out of five of these kids would have committed another crime after their release from prison. Now they are paying taxes and contributing to the revenues of our state to help "promote the general welfare" of our citizens—and these were scary kids!
Dont get me wrong. I have to send some kids away because this program, despite its intensive level of surveillance and services, is not going to protect the community. It's a sad fact of life for some, but it shouldn't be for over half the population now housed in our facilities who are low risk to hurt others.
In Clayton County, our commitment rates have declined 43 percent by implementing evidence based practices alongside intensive surveillance mechanisms. Our filings have declined 67 percent.
The economics of juvenile justice is simple. The more we get smart about who gets committed, the more money we save to help kids become taxpayers.
Now thats a good investment strategy!
"What happened in your life that made you a passionate advocate for kids?"
When Jane Hansen, Information Officer for the Georgia Supreme Court, asked me this question last week during an interview, I thought, "Whoa -- the question assumed something happened to me."
Now I am paranoid -- what does she know that I don't? I have known Jane going way back to my days as a parole officer when she was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution -- she has a keen sense of things.
This "happening" resides in the recesses of my mind, something that rises to the surface from time to time when triggered by an event, song, or a question.
My Dad's work transferred us to a small town in Kansas between my third and fourth grade years. It was the first day of school -- I was nervous more than most on the first day -- I didn’t know anyone.
We started the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I noticed a boy sitting toward the front who remained seated during the pledge. He didn’t utter a word. The teacher to my amazement didn't admonish him to stand and take part.
As it goes with kids, I had bigger worries on my first day and soon forgot about this act of defiance -- until the next day. Again the boy didn't stand. Now I was getting curiously frustrated in that 10-year-old way. Why does he get to stay seated while the rest of us have to stand? That's not fair I thought to myself. I was getting angry.
Consider what we were going through in those years of the Cold War. It was circa 1966. During school, we would sometimes be paraded out of class and into the hallways when the "attack" bell sounded. Then we would stand face forward to the wall with our hands behind our heads. All this was in hopes of surviving the impact and aftermath of the impact of a nuclear missile bearing the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union.
In my world at age 10, this boy was a communist sympathizer!
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought this.
When school let out that day, I ran into what I thought at first glance was a schoolyard fight. But no, it was three boys beating and kicking the communist sympathizing "he deserves to get his butt kicked" Pledge-of-Allegiance-refusing student.
In my state of confusion, I didn’t know whether to stand there or run away? I certainly wasn't thinking about helping a communist!
In my moment of indecision I hesitated just long enough to look down and see this boy's face, and than his eyes made contact with mine. In what seemed like minutes, he reached out his hand to me with tears flowing from his eyes and said with a screeching cry, "Help me."
I kept running until I reached that one safe place -- my bedroom.
My Mom noticed at dinner that I was quiet and asked me if I was OK. I told her I was fine, but I couldn’t get the boy's plea for help out of my head. I finally spoke up and told her about the boy and how he refused to stand and pledge the flag. I asked her if he was a communist.
"No," she replied. "He is a Jehovah Witness."
Mom explained that the boy wasn't disrespectful, but that his Christian beliefs forbid saluting.
"Jehovah Witnesses are very respectful of government," she explained. "They pay taxes and obey the laws," but what Mom said next pierced my heart.
"In his world of thinking he is placing the flag above God. No person should be forced to suffer that trauma."
I went to bed that night mulling over my Mom's words. The more I looked at it through the boy's eyes, the more I felt guilty and ashamed. Guilty for assuming he was bad, ashamed for running.
He was beaten to a pulp because he was different and it didn't matter even if he was a commie. He didn't deserve to be beaten.
I cried that night and Mom heard it. She came in and I told her the rest of the story of my shame and guilt. She held me in her arms and said she was proud that I felt ashamed and counseled me to do something about it.
I promised myself that night -- alone and crying in the bedroom – that I would never run again. And so, I made friends with that boy.
It was difficult to re-live that moment with Jane -- my voice breaking, cracking, and my fingers pressing against my watery eyes to hold back a complete break-down. But I've always known that it defined my existence to be an advocate.
I chose my path of advocacy at age 15. I knew then I would go to law school. I have traveled a road that has taken me to a place that many think unlikely for an advocate -- the judicial bench. After all, judges wear robes and sit on a bench, hear evidence, respond to objections, decide cases, research the law, and draft orders -- what more is there to judging?
The answer, I think, depends on what that judge decides to do when he or she takes off the robe. The key question is, "What can I do off the bench to become more effective on the bench?" After all, the Judicial Canons encourage us to "engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice."
I don’t have to leave my Georgia backyard to find judicial advocates working to improve juvenile justice in their communities through collaboration and innovative programming. But only so much can be done without the resources needed to make a difference in the lives of kids with childhood trauma leading to delinquent behaviors.
Gov. Nathan Deal is cognizant of these limitations and wants change that will tear down the walls that keep us moving forward. So, he created a reform council and gave them the tools to delve keenly into what works and what doesn't -- analysts from the Pew Trust Center and Annie E. Casey Foundation.
No matter how it turns out, I am thankful for my governor's leadership to seek reform, my colleagues on the council for their dedication, and my fellow Georgia judges for their "off the bench" advocacy.
At least I know we are not running from kids in trouble. We are staying to fight!
How we respond to young people when they make us mad can make or break them, emotionally and physically. Notwithstanding the studies showing genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism and other traits, we enter this world with a blank slate.
We are born with great potential to do wonderful things and experience that happiness as referenced in the Declaration of Independence. Despite our inalienable right to pursue happiness, this pursuit is thwarted for many children and young people who are traumatized at the hands of their parents or caretakers through abuse, neglect, violence and other toxic stressors. The blank slate brought into the world gets filled with some pretty ugly scribbling that makes it difficult for the rest of us to understand, including the child.
When children experience complex trauma -- violence, hurt, neglect, stress caused by a caretaker -- the brain gets re-wired. Dr. Julian Ford, a leading researcher of childhood trauma as a pathway to delinquency, describes the affect of traumatization on a child as "Dis-empowerment"-- or an "automatic shift from a brain/body that is fully able to experience what is important in life to being in survival mode."
When this occurs, the brain and personality may be disrupted and in turn the child's ability to resolve stressful situations can be compromised. This dis-empowering event or events alters the child's brain to where ordinary stress becomes a struggle to survive -- it triggers an alarm in the brain that won't turn off!
Children suffering "dis-empowerment" may "cope by resorting to indifference, defiance, or aggression as self-protective reactions." When this occurs, children usually exhibit risk-taking behaviors including rule breaking, fighting back and hurting others. And this, says Dr. Ford, is the pathway to delinquency.
There is growing research into childhood trauma in the traditional sense of parental or caretaker abuse and neglect as well as serious life stressors such as witnessing violence, experiencing the death of a caretaker, or the separation of parents.
But I ask to what extent our school systems -- with the aid of police and the courts -- have caused the "dis-empowerment" of children and consequently compromise their pursuit of happiness?
We have a compulsory school attendance law mandating children attend school. We make them leave their homes and spend most of their waking hours under a roof with hundreds of other kids. When we send our kids to school, the school exercises control over them using the doctrine of "in loco parentis" - -a Latin phrase meaning "In the place of a parent." Lets face it, school administrators and teachers are caretakers. They are acting in the place of a parent to do what's in the best interest of the child.
In our current era of zero tolerance laws and policies to punish students with suspension, expulsion, and arrest, schools, in their role as a parent, overreact in many circumstances that can traumatize those they are obliged to protect?
I am not even referring to those students who have already experienced childhood trauma and enter our schools with existing vulnerabilities due to "dis-empowerment" and now re-traumatized with handcuffs, a ride in the back of a patrol car, the experience of booking procedures and maybe a jail cell.
Let's stick to the kids that did not experience childhood trauma -- the kids that are relatively healthy in an emotional sense, but sometimes get caught up in the juvenile version of the Jerry Springer Show. Let's not forget that kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things. They are under neurological construction and need positive surroundings and thoughtful and deliberative responses from their adult caretakers when they find themselves in stressful circumstances.
Last year, a deputy in our campus police program was called to a classroom to confront a disruptive student. The child got upset at a teacher's directive and went off. In the old days -- before we developed our school referral reduction protocol -- a complaint would have been filed with the court and maybe the child handcuffed. Instead, using crisis intervention skills, the deputy made inquiries and learned that the student did not have anything to eat in 24 hours. She took the student to the cafeteria, fed her, and the student was fine the rest of the day. A referral was made to social services to look into the matter.
In another school, a deputy was called to a classroom. This time it was a student throwing items and threatening to kill the teacher. The student had to be removed from the classroom immediately. Again, in the old days, she would have been handcuffed and transported to juvenile court intake -- no questions asked. Afterall, she threatened to kill a teacher! Instead, the deputy isolated her, calmed her down, and using crisis intervention discovered that her mother’s live-in boyfriend was raping her. She was taken into protective custody -- not arrested --and her mother's boyfriend arrested instead.
What are we doing to kids when the adults wear zero tolerances glasses? Why can't we see the many missed opportunities to save kids from traumatic circumstances? Why do we insist on pursuing a policy that re-traumatizes traumatized kids and traumatize emotionally healthy kids?
Take for instance the recent case of the 8-year-old Georgia student who brought an unloaded gun to school in his backpack. The administrators admit that the child's intention was to show it off. There was no intent to hurt anyone. But our laws demand that this 8-year-old must be expelled from school for one year. The caretakers in his life -- the school -- is kicking him out of what is equivalent to his home away from home. The place that serves as the best protective buffer against delinquency --education and social development. Will this child be traumatized--"dis-empowered?"
I think many would be surprised to find how many campus police prefer Clayton County Georgia's model of Positive Student Engagement over arresting as a means of policing on campus. Myself and Lt. Francisco Romero of the Clayton County Police Department recently traveled to Broward County, Fla. to deliver training on this model. When all was said and done, a survey was taken of police on the question: "How many would favor a no arrest policy of nonviolent misdemeanants?" It was unanimous -- all campus police raised their hands!
I was overwhelmed when Major Miguel A. Martinez of the Hallandale Beach Police Department modified Maslow's quote of a "hammer" and "nail' to fit the campus police scenario -- "If the only tool is a cop--than every problem is a crime."
We cannot arrest our way out of every problem. It's not that simple!
We are capable of doing better for our children.
I recently trained some probation officers on something called graduated sanctions -- a best practice in the supervision of juveniles that gives probation officers discretion to respond immediately to probation violations without having to file a petition, arrest the kid and appear before the judge.
It’s worth mentioning, because a number of courts do not use it, but suffer busier dockets and tend to have higher detention and recidivist rates.
It has confounded me why some of us in this business haven't figured out that keeping officers in the field and out of the courtroom, reduces recidivism. The real work, you might say, is outside the courtroom.
But those of us doing graduated sanctions must do it correctly.
My observation of those jurisdictions that have not adopted this best practice is due to not knowing it is an effective supervision tool or because of philosophy -- either on the part of the judge, probation, or both -- that is grounded in either judicial discretion, a "get tough" attitude or a combination of the two.
Discretion is a double-edged sword -- it can kill your enemy or the one's you seek to protect. A common judicial response I often hear when doing training on risk assessment tools for detention decision-making--they take away our discretion.
Judicial discretion is not unfettered. It must be exercised within the parameters of the constitution and state law. For example, the criteria that guide judges in their decision to detain are two fold -- risk of flight and danger to the community. Judicial discretion to detain must be grounded in findings of fact that support the criteria. The question is what evidence creates a risk of flight or danger to the community?
Detention assessment instruments are objective tools to guard against bias of any kind. They are research driven and validated to predict re-offending with good accuracy. Despite the effectiveness of this tool, some judges protest the use of objective risk assessment instruments because they invade their discretion. They assume the assessment dictates their decision when in fact it informs their decision.
I was in Worcester, Mass., recently to address the juvenile court judges at their annual training. My topic was, "To Detain or Not to Detain: Three Parts Law, Two Parts Information, and One Part Discretion." We derive our discretion from the law and make our decision primarily on the information we receive. The more informed -- the better the decision.
My presentation was followed by the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, Edward Dolan, who analogized a judge's use of a detention assessment tool to the Red Sox manager deciding which reliever to use. It would depend on the batter, is it a lefty or a righty, did he use the pitcher yesterday, and so on using objective factors that help him to predict a good outcome.
A coach wants to win and is motivated to use objective criteria to inform his discretion on the right pitcher for that moment. Judges are motivated to prevent and reduce recidivism -- and the improper use of detention makes kids worse.
Likewise, judges who resist a graduated sanction program do so primarily because they fear releasing control to the probation officer.
A graduated sanction program is not about control -- it's about modifying behavior using swift and immediate responses to rule violations. Control and discretion are not interchangeable -- I control a case by an order, but use my discretion to delegate authority to probation officers for the sole purpose of enforcing my order and giving it meaning.
Conversely, some probation officers resist a graduated sanctions program because it's time consuming and inconvenient. Judges can't provide direct services. Behavior modification occurs in the field -- the home, school, counseling center, and so on.
Quite frankly – it’s not enough to do graduated sanctions if all it means is "graduated" and "sanctions."
The word "graduated" means "arranged in a successive order"--that means increasing or upward.
A seasoned probation officer in Arkansas once told me, "The elevator goes down too!" A response should be tailored to the violation and it can go up or down like an elevator depending on the circumstances and the needs of the youth.
The term "sanctions" means "to penalize, especially by way of discipline." The research is adamant that punishment and discipline alone does not reduce recidivism -- it increases it!
When I was punished in childhood my Mom always followed up with the "conversation" to help me make the connection between my behavior and the punisher -- that is the equivalent of therapy or treatment in the world of juvenile justice.
What if the violation of probation is a manifestation of something that is clinical in nature such as mental illness, cognition, or trauma? Punishers as sole responses do not change the behavior -- they make it worse.
I know this may be hard for some to accept who grew up with discipline as a deterrent factor. I am not dismissing discipline as a tool -- I grew up with my Mom quoting "Spare the rod, spoil the child." I am quite familiar with the spanking -- but I was more familiar with my Mom's kind words, loving arms and protective persona. Let's not forget I had a Dad who came to my sporting events, wrote to me every day I was in the Navy, and took me fishing -- not to mention I knew he would take care of my Mom.
You see, I didn’t come into this world as Johnny did with an addicted Mom dragging him to Trap Houses to get her fix and leaving him abandoned with strangers. Johnny suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a pathway to delinquency. The punishment that worked for me will not work for Johnny. We come from two different worlds.
The probation officer told me in court, "all graduated sanctions have been exhausted and to no avail." She wanted him detained, "there is nothing left," she said.
Sadly, she was right. If the focus is on "sanction" and not "response." Johnny's conduct is a manifestation of his diagnosis for which "sanctions" as the sole response is not helpful.
Johnny is a victim of serious neglect and a childhood collection of stress for which punishment will not help him navigate through his own emotional maze of confusion, fear and insecurity that in adolescence translates into a callous and defiant attitude and in turn delinquent conduct.
When we fail to get it right, we create a vicious cycle of callousness and defiance. We punish Johnny because he is callous and defiant without understanding why he is that way. In Johnny's eyes, he sees us as callous and defiant for punishing him for self-protective behavior and that's not fair in his world and ours too.
I understand why Johnny is callous. Now, what's our excuse?
Wouldn't it be nice if life were simple--that the answers to our problems were obvious and problems solved with painless ease? Take for instance Johnny, the boy I described in my last essay, who from birth was toted around by his Mom to trap houses to get her fix. No telling what he saw--or much worse, what others did to him--in those places. Johnny is a confused kid, emotionally pained by fear of insecurity. His weapon of defense: defiance fueled by anger.
Johnny pains us too, because he is aggravating with his chronic disobedience of the rules. We keep sanctioning him, with the misguided notion that punishment will change his attitude, until we give up, wash our hands, and commit him to the state thinking we did all we could do. The paradox of juvenile justice is that on one hand we do have the capacity to diagnose his cause of delinquency and we do know what it will take to improve his behavior, but on the other hand most systems don't know what to do or don't have the resources or both. Our response is to give up and take the road of least resistance--detain or commit by default. When the means to do what is right for a kid is not readily available, we dump our problem somewhere else--a detention facility, state custody, or in a long-term secure facility.
Consequently, most states, including mine, have a lot of low-risk, high-needs kids in state custody that could otherwise remain in the community if judges had the resources necessary to effectively treat these kids. We commit them to a place we call secure, but the truth is they are insecure. They aggravate the insecurities of the Johnnys who will return home one day worse off than when they entered.
I admit that I fell victim to this default system during the first few years on the bench, and it was frustrating. Our detention and commitment rates were high--and so were our recidivist rates! Something had to give in my community to reverse this vicious cycle of detention to commitment to re-offending. Juveniles entering our system were getting worse, not better. This is true in many states--including my own!
I did not get that help until 2003, after four years into the job--and it wasn't in the form of money. My court joined over 100 courts from around the country to participate in the Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI). The JDAI modelm, along with the networking, taught me to think outside the box.
The foundation of any successful local juvenile justice system is leadership through collaboration, and JDAI helped us to realize this need. Something had to give, and that “something” was us! We had to stop pointing fingers and saying, "Its not my problem," or coming up with social, legal, political and who knows how many other reasons our creative minds can conjure to excuse why we can't be and do different for the good of our kids--and ultimately our community.
We created a juvenile justice cooperative and from it many cooperative protocols were produced in accordance with the Community Based Risk Reduction law that exists in our juvenile code (OCGA 15-11-10). That's right! It is public policy that judges exercise leadership to bring stakeholders together to develop cooperative agreements to address and prevent delinquency, deprivation and unruliness.
Over time, this cooperative caused a cognitive shift through the relationships that ensued between the agencies--a realization that the juvenile justice system is not a single entity, but a collection of independent public and private groups that can do far more for kids and families if their resources are shared and realigned to focus on a desired outcome--prevent delinquency and reduce recidivism.
This cognitive group shift resulted in a 70 percent decrease in the average daily detention population and 43 percent fewer commitments to state custody.
Johnny is now on GPS and he and the family are being evaluated by our Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team (Quad C-ST), our single point of entry into our System of Care (SOC). This group of multi-disciplinary stakeholders meets weekly to assess kids and families to develop a plan that targets the reasons for his behavior, his childhood trauma among others. The stakeholders share resources, a concept foreign to us in the beginning, but a way of life now.
Recently, I made a presentation as part of a panel at the Carter Center, an annual symposium on mental health sponsored by former First Lady Rosalyn Carter. I had the privilege to share the panel with Dr. Julian Ford, a leading researcher on child trauma and delinquency.
He shared studies focusing on trauma child victimization as a pathway to delinquency, including clinical and epidemiological studies indicating that three in four youths in the juvenile justice system have been exposed to some form of trauma. Trauma could include violence, abuse, neglect, or an accumulation of stressful life events such as family problems, including death, drugs, parent-child conflict and mental illness.
Studies indicate that victimized children under age 12 are at serious risk, especially if in a family of low function, and may respond as a victim and act out in self-protection. Their self-protective responses, in their child’s mind, can translate into defiance of rules and authority.
Dr. Ford states it this way--a traumatized youth's "thinking tends to be reactive, rigid, impulsive and defiant. This, in turn, leads to distorted views of self, peers and relationships and difficulty solving ordinary social problems."
Sound familiar for us in juvenile justice?
Dr. Ford and others have recommendations for judges--require an assessment tool to determine the presence of trauma stressors to design an order that targets the trauma needs of the child using proven interventions, such as emotional dys-regulation and survival using victim based information processing to help the kid recover from victimization.
Detention and commitment re-traumatizes the kid--yet it happens too often because commitment becomes a default when the hammer is the only tool.
Most systems of funding are ineffective and wasteful--not to mention hurtful! We spend more money removing kids from their home, even though about half could be treated at home at a cost far less expensive--and with greater success.
A number of states have made changes in how they do business, with good outcomes. The changes were dramatic--the type that makes people insecure and push back, making excuses why we cant do it, for fear of change.
For those feeling the insecurity and want to push back, now you know how Johnny lives every day of his life.
Our insecurities keep many of our kids locked up in a world of insecurity. Something has to give.
Johnny was arraigned for probation violation. He is 15 and of small stature. He was originally placed on probation for residential burglary -- the party to a crime kind where misery likes company. His violations were technical -- not a new crime. He is simply not complying with the rules of probation -- specifically curfew, marijuana and failing to follow directions at the evening reporting center -- our afterschool program designed to break-up the anti-social peer network.
It's important to know this is not Johnny's first act of defiance on probation. Our court has a well-oiled graduated response system in place that since it's inception has reduced the filings of violations by over 80 percent by giving probation officers tools to quickly respond to technical violations. Without a response system the probation officer is likely to use the judge as a default and that can be problematic.
Bringing out the judge is like using a hammer to kill a fly -- the hammer may be powerful, but it's too heavy to hit its mark.
It also assumes that the kid always requires the hammer. A heavy-handed default system will make the kid worse -- it's like performing a lobotomy to cure a migraine.
It also doesn't make sense to place a judge in the position of directing a probation officer to take action that he or she could have done in the first place. So the kid starts to think -- "Really, you (probation officer) filed all this paperwork and brought me to court only to have the judge tell me to do something you could have directed -- and much sooner!"
Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, "If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Not every violation is a nail -- and not every kid should be pounded. Improper use of tools -- like a hammer -- causes injury and likely makes the kid worse.
Johnny is a case in point. In all fairness to the probation officer, she employed several graduated responses that would improve Johnny's behavior for a short period and soon thereafter would relapse. This time she brought the matter before me saying that all graduated responses have been exhausted and requested weekend detention as a consequence.
When I inquired with the mother, probation officer, prosecutor, and even defense counsel their opinion why Johnny is non-responsive, the answer was quick and simple -- he needs a greater punisher to get his attention. Now bear in mind as they were talking to me, I was culling through his file, which is over three inches thick -- mostly petitions and orders involving parental neglect. I saw where this was going and I asked my bailiff to accompany Johnny outside the courtroom with his attorney's permission. He didn't need to hear what I was about to say about his mother.
When they finished exposing their united opinion that Johnny has a bad disposition toward authority, I asked them if they had read the first petition filed in this court -- and they had not.
He was 19 months old when the first petition was filed. There was a pregnant pause followed by a slow turn of their heads looking at each other with a "where is this going?" type of look. The allegations in the petition, later proven true, described mom's drug addiction and constant trips to drug houses for quick fixes. She was not alone -- she brought Johnny.
Johnny was taken from his mom, was raised by his grandparents with mom in and out of his life until finally she got sober -- and stayed sober -- but the damage was done.
Research is clear that children who experience maltreatment before age 12 are more likely to engage in delinquent acts during adolescence. Children -- like Johnny -- victimized by those they trust are at risk to enter adolescence resorting to "survival coping" behaviors that come across to the rest of us as callous and defiant but are self-protective in a world they perceive themselves as alone and powerless.
I will confess - -I didn’t know exactly what to do with Johnny at that moment. I knew he needed a consequence -- but locking him up for the weekend was not the answer -- not even as a punisher. Here's the rub: Johnny does know the difference between right and wrong. His survival coping behaviors translate into a defiant attitude because he doesn't trust adults and he is angry. The irony is that he wants to right the wrongs against him -- he wants justice!
As long as he is non-violent, jail is an inappropriate tool to modify behavior, especially since he is a trauma victim. I am the fool to think that bringing out the hammer and pounding on Johnny will change an attitude that is grounded in his head like a tattoo on an arm. Like removing a tattoo, Johnny's cognition won't change without some pain -- and I mean on our part too.
It’s time to get tough -- and I mean on ourselves as practitioners. The Johnnys in our system need our patience and our skill to discern the right from the wrong when it comes to effective interventions.
Johnny wants to feel safe in this world. Our job is to take his hand and guide him to that safe place.
A painful reminder -- Johnny will trip and fall several times and we will go down with him -- if we are holding his hand. Just keep holding his hand -- he never had that growing up.
During a hot summer day, daycare workers removed children from a van, except one -- Jazzmin Green. She was two years old. Sixteen-year-old Miesha Ridley was responsible for checking off the names of the children as they were removed. There was a mark next to Jazzmin's name. An hour passed before anyone noticed she was missing. They found her in the van unconscious -- still strapped to her car seat. She died from the heat. Miesha and two adult workers were arrested.
Miesha admitted to voluntary manslaughter -- it was time for disposition. Jazzmin's parents made it clear that anything other than prison for Miesha would be "unfair." They just buried their child and the pain was eating at them. During the hearing, Mr. Green shared these feelings of unfairness and asked that "justice" be done.
As I listened to Mr. Green's passionate plea to do what's "fair" for his dead child by exacting justice upon Miesha, I contemplated how its impossible to be fair and do justice under many circumstances -- this being one of them.
Restorative justice, for example, doesn’t work because its fair, it works because its not fair.
Now the contentious question:"How can a best practice be unfair?"
My mom taught me that "life is not fair," and the distinction between fairness and justice. In my 13 years on the bench, I have found some lawyers suffering this delusion. Fairness and justice are separate and distinct terms with different values and are not easily interchangeable although interrelated within the legal concept of due process. Justice cannot exist without fairness, but fairness does not always result in justice.
It’s not that my mom loathed fairness, she despised the way most people applied it.
Mom was notorious for quoting scripture and on the subject of fairness her favorite was Ecclesiastes 9:11--“The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
Following the biblical quotation, mom began her train of examples saying, "If life were fair…"
The fastest runner would always win the race.
All businessmen and women who dealt honestly with their customers would get rich, while those who cheat and are deceptive would go bankrupt.
People who dedicate their lives to protecting the rights of others would be hailed as, while those who fight to keep an oppressive state would be viewed as villains.
People who live their lives applying the "Golden Rule" all the time would live long prosperous lives, while those who murder, rape, steal, and molest children have taken from them what they took from others.
The list in my mom's lecture goes on, but you get the point.
"Fairness ignores actions and consequences," mom would say. "It ignores who created the problem or issues, why they did it, and who will be affected."
Mom made it clear that fairness demands that we ignore competence because some people have and others do not; that people who struggled to create businesses should make no more money than those they employ because everyone is equal; and that awards should be equally dispersed to all because we are all equal.
"Fairness has no respect for achievement, no respect for effort, no respect for quality, no respect for intelligence, no respect for ability, no respect for motive -- and that is not justice!"
Fairness she said, "has no respect for the individual."
Fairness is the guidepost by which all people, regardless of their individuality, are treated equally to ensure that if accused of wrongdoing they will be placed on the same playing field to be guaranteed a fair hearing. We call this due process within the delinquency context as set down in Gualt.
The goal of our system of justice is to ensure that all persons, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, political and religious beliefs, or any characteristic for that matter, will receive a fair trial. In other words, all persons are equal despite the diversity of our citizens.
If adjudicated on the charge, the concept of fairness begins its transition toward justice -- we hope. Fairness, in the sense of equal treatment, should play a smaller role or else we risk missing our mark -- justice.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . ." is an axiom of legal distinction, not a maxim of general truth.
We are not equal in many ways, and it is those differences that must determine how we respond to a child.
I often get complaints why I treated one child differently than the other when they both committed the same crime together.
"That's not fair," a parent tells me in court when I respond differently to her child's co-defendant.
I try my best to explain why her son is not equal to the other -- age, education, attitude, family function, and other factors that can be protective or risk factors depending on the child and family.
If I did what was fair in Jazzmin Green's case, there could be no justice. I would be forced to ignore the individual characteristics of Miesha -- a young lady with applications to college. Miesha was on the road to success and it was up to me to keep her on that road -- not bump her off it.
Ironically, it was Mr. Green who opened the door to ignore what's fair and do justice. He said to me, "Judge, who will remember my child?"
The moment of judgment came. I told Mr. Green that no one will remember your daughter if we lock up Miesha.
"Miesha can help this community remember Jazzmin, but only if she remains in the community to work at it," I told him.
I placed Miesha on probation and ordered her to construct a memorial to Jazzmin to be placed in a public domain indefinitely.
On July 18, 2012, CBS Evening News filmed the Greens and Miesha together for the first time. Miesha presented them with the memorial quilt -- they all cried sharing stories of Jazzmin. The Greens told Miesha they forgave her. Miesha needed that forgiveness -- so did the Greens.
The quilt hangs prominently next to pictures of Jazzmin in the new juvenile justice center in Clayton County -- a reminder that forgiveness and healing is the key to restoring lives -- and a tribute to restorative justice.