Mississippi Judge’s Youth Court Shut Down After Mother Kept from Baby for Year Over Fines

Jackson Free Press

Malia* and her friend were driving in Pearl, Mississippi, one day in August last year, out looking for jobs. Malia, who is in her 20s, was in the passenger seat, and her 4-month-old baby rode in a car seat in the back. Suddenly, a Pearl police officer pulled the vehicle over for a traffic violation involving using a phone while driving. The officer ran Malia and her friend’s names and found they both had outstanding warrants for routine misdemeanor offenses, meaning that Malia had not paid Pearl Municipal Court fines she owed.

The officer arrested both women and called the Mississippi Department of Human Services to report that the baby was “abandoned” after her mother’s arrest. Even though the baby’s grandmother, Malia’s mother, showed up to take the baby, the officer took the child before Judge John Shirley, who presided over Pearl Municipal Youth Court.

Youth court judges in Mississippi preside over all matters involving delinquent juveniles in addition to abused, neglected or abandoned children. Youth court judges have the power to send children to foster care, grant custody to different guardians or give a child to adoptive parents.

Judge John Shirley gave custody of the baby to the grandmother immediately. Shirley, who also presided over Pearl Municipal Court, demanded $500 from Malia of her outstanding court fees, which totaled more than $1,000. Neither Malia nor her mother could afford that, so Malia spent seven nights in jail, MacArthur Justice Center attorney Cliff Johnson said. He also said the Pearl Municipal Court could not produce files on Malia’s earlier misdemeanors. After a week, Malia’s mother got $300 together to help get her out of jail. It was around this time that Shirley issued an order preventing Malia from seeing her child.

Youth court judges conduct hearings within 14 days after the initial hearing and consider several factors, including the child’s physical and mental conditions and the parent’s ability to provide supervision. Following the hearing, Malia believed that she could not see her child because the judge had granted her mother custody of the baby, Johnson said. Malia still owed fees in Shirley’s municipal court, and she did not return to youth court to attempt to get custody of her child back. Mississippi law did not mandate that Malia be provided an attorney to represent her.

The above account is based on a press release attorney Johnson prepared and subsequent interviews with him. Youth court documents detailing the situation are bound by strict state confidentiality rules and not public record.

More than a year later, Malia heard about the MacArthur Justice Center and called Johnson in October. He investigated her case and alerted the Pearl Board of Aldermen and Mayor Jake Windham about Malia’s case. Shirley reversed his order on Oct. 24, despite Malia still not paying her court fines. The mother could finally see her now 18-month-old baby after more than a year of court-ordered separation.

Late on Oct. 25, the Pearl Board of Aldermen and the mayor met for an emergency meeting. The aldermen decided to shut down the youth court, and Shirley resigned his post as both the Pearl Municipal Youth Court and Justice Court judge.

Shirley, who also serves as a justice court judge in Rankin County, claims some information Johnson wrote in his press release is untrue.

The judge responds

Shirley claims the mother did not come back to youth court and that he did not know she was indigent. After news of his resignation broke, he sent a statement to TV station WLBT placing the responsibility on the teenage mother.

“The child’s mother complained in a press release that her contact with a child was prohibited because she was indigent, but she refused to appear in court at the next hearing and never informed me about financial issues,” Shirley said in the statement published by WLBT. “I have always been very understanding about financial issues if I have been informed by someone in court, but a judge can’t properly assess a financial situation unless informed. The remedy was for the mother to appear in court and she did NOT.”

Shirley wrote that youth court judges are authorized to order “no contact” between a child and the child’s parent “if the judge is concerned that the child would not be safe because the parent is refusing to take corrective action to prevent future abuse or neglect. One indicator of a parent refusing to take corrective action is when the parent refuses to come to court.”

Johnson says that if Shirley believed Malia to be a neglectful and abusive mother, he gave no reason why she should suddenly get custody of her baby back days before the city shuttered its youth court. Johnson said his client has two more children who continued to live with her this past year. He could not see the youth court documents either because the court did not appoint him to represent Malia, he said.

Malia did not return to youth court after the hearing last August, but Johnson says his client’s story of being locked up for unpaid fees and then being fearful to return to court is common. The MacArthur Justice Center has spearheaded litigation, most recently in Scott County, Mississippi, to change the judicial practice of locking people up for their inability to pay fines. Johnson said if a person is intimidated or frightened to go back to court, they usually will not.

“The reason they don’t show back up is because they are afraid of those judges. They are afraid if they go back to court, they’re going to get put in jail, so they just hope against hope that they’re not going to get picked up,” Johnson said.

Shirley’s press release, titled “Political Games by Mayor and County Youth Court Judge,” alleges that the “situation” arose due to a coordinated effort between Windham and Rankin County Youth Court Judge Tom Broome.

“I resigned because I am tired of the politics of Mayor Jake Windham and Rankin County Youth Court Judge Tom Broome,” Shirley’s statement says.

Broome told the Jackson Free Press he did not want to dignify the statement with a comment, saying “I will let my record and that of our court speak for itself.” He is a board member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Windham said he and the board acted on objective facts presented to them. “This had no political gerrymandering going on,” he said. He felt he had made the correct decision for the city and was taken aback by Shirley’s statement, he said.

Shirley defends his time on the bench in Pearl, saying his coordination with law enforcement officers and his persistent pushing on Child Protective Services workers resulted in “many criminal child predators [that have] been prosecuted and convicted.”

Johnson calls the act of linking child contact to inability to pay court fees “judicial kidnapping.” He said he got “dozens and dozens” of calls after releasing his statement on Oct. 26, which indicated to him that not being able to see children due to outstanding fees was common in Pearl.

Shirley did not respond to repeated requests for comment through Pearl public information officers, Facebook messages, emails and messages left at Pearl Municipal Court and Rankin County Justice Court.

Uniformity needed

Youth court proceedings are entirely closed off to the public, and all records are confidential in Mississippi. Youth court judges are in charge of determining if a parent has neglected or abused a child or children. These judges determine whether removing a child from the home is necessary and if so, whether to place them in foster care or in the custody of another parent or guardian. While youth court judges are supposed to follow uniform rules of procedure, their actions tend to be inconsistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Carlyn Hicks, director of the Mission First Legal Aid office, said Mississippi is in need of a uniform county youth court system. Parents around the state, she said, need to expect the same level of engagement from the Division of Child Protection Services, youth courts and law enforcement.

“Until we see that in a unified front, we are going to continue to have problems; we are still going to have issues,” Hicks said. “… [T]he most important thing would be the uniformity in how the youth court operates.”

Court-appointed attorneys for parents in youth court would help address accountability and transparency challenges, Hicks added.

Judge Tom Broome, the youth court judge of Rankin County Youth Court, now has jurisdiction over all of Shirley’s cases. He said his staff is working as quickly as possible to take inventory of all the Pearl Youth Court cases, prioritizing out-of-home placement cases.

“We always try to make sure that the children are in a safe spot, but also recognize the importance of children growing up in their own home with their parents, and parents being able to raise their own children,” he said.

*Name created because Johnson would not provide Malia’s real name.

State reporter Arielle Dreher is a reporter for the Jackson Free Press, where this story also appears. Read Youth Court-related stories at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

This story has been updated.

Advocates Focus on Conference Committee After JJDPA Reauthorization Passes Senate

WASHINGTON — Juvenile justice reform advocates are turning their attention to a House and Senate conference committee after a key bill, a decade-plus in the making, passed yet another legislative hurdle.

The Senate passed a reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (S 860) on Tuesday by a voice vote. The act hadn’t been reauthorized since 2002 and was badly in need of an update, juvenile justice advocates have long argued.

The bill now heads to a conference committee to be reconciled with its House version, HR 1809. The main difference is that the House version completely phases out 1984 provisions that allow minors to be locked up for status offenses — running away from home, skipping school, etc. The Senate kept language that would allow a minor to be locked up if his or her status offense violated a valid court order.  Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, a longtime obstacle to Senate passage, had insisted on the court order provisions.

Still, with nearly 60,000 young people in juvenile facilities, many reform advocates seemed grateful just to get this far and were cautiously optimistic about final passage. “We are glad to see Congress coming together to take this important action,” said Naomi Smoot, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, in a statement. “It is our hope that the final legislation will include a phase-out of the valid court order exception, and bring an end to the incarceration of children who are in need of services, not jail time.”

The Senate bill’s main sponsors were Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island. Both hailed the legislation as “a significant step” toward reform.

“Youngsters who encounter the juvenile justice system should be treated safely, fairly and in a manner that encourages greater respect for the law,” Grassley said in a statement. “The federal juvenile justice program helps states achieve these fundamental goals, but the program hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.”

In his own statement, Whitehouse said the bill “will help kids in the system to turn things around, return home, and stay out of trouble.”

“It helps to stop practices that do more harm than good, like confining young people with adults or putting them in solitary confinement,” Whitehouse added.

Among other things, the Senate bill:

  • Requires states that receive federal grants to commit to “core principles,” including segregation of young detainees from adults and the identification and reduction of racial disparities in juvenile detention;
  • “Encourages” authorities to be more vigilant at screening children who might have been sexually trafficked or who suffer from mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse; and
  • Encourages grantees to phase out the shackling of pregnant girls, support continuing education for detainees and “promote greater separation of juvenile offenders” from adult detainees.

The legislation would set aside $159 million in federal funds for fiscal 2017, followed by a 1.5 percent increase per year through 2021.

Senate passage has stalled for years, mostly over concerns about the court order exception to juvenile lockup. Cotton has long stood in the way of reauthorizations over the issue. This year, when he convinced Grassley and Whitehouse not to remove the court order exception, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul put a hold on the bill. In the end, Rand agreed to drop his objections and the legislation passed.

Some juvenile justice advocates are hopeful that the court order language will be removed in conference. The House bill would require states to phase out the exception in three years.

As it stands, half the states have either banned the practice or not made use of it. Nonetheless, more than 7,000 young people were locked up for status offenses against a valid court order in a year.

Cotton has increasingly become isolated in his opposition to waiving the court order exception. In July, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, which successfully lobbied for the exception in the 1980s, reversed itself, saying that it now “supports the development of consultation resources for those courts that have been using the valid court order exception to guide them in reforming their policies, programs, and practices regarding youth engaged in status offense behaviors.”

The Importance of Judicial Leadership in Juvenile Justice

I am on a plane heading home from Reno. I spent a day at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges teaching relatively new judges on the topic of juvenile detention alternatives. I was impressed with the group of judges and their favorable disposition to detention reform. In fact, in all my travels to present or deliver technical assistance, I have yet to meet a judge who doesn’t already understand, appreciate, and or have the desire to apply detention alternative tools and practices.

The key to developing strategies to reduce unnecessary detention is collaboration — bringing police, schools, social services, mental health, and other stakeholders to the table to understand the principles and law underlying alternatives to detention and more importantly identify resources and best strategies. Just as collaboration is the key to detention reform, judicial leadership is the key to collaboration. Despite most judges favorable disposition to detention reform, many juvenile justice practitioners have commented that they would like their judge to show more leadership in addressing the underlying causes of unnecessary detention — especially the school system’s zero tolerance policies.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) model for detention reform includes eight core strategies of which collaboration is primary and the judge is integral in making it happen. Not all stakeholders intersect with each other involving a child, but all stakeholders intersect in the courtroom at some point involving a kid. This makes the courtroom the intersection of juvenile justice — and the judge the traffic cop. This unique role gives judges significant ability to influence stakeholders to come together. Juvenile judges possess a unique dichotomy of judicial leadership — a traffic cop in the court room but a convener in the community.

I believe former NCJFCJ president Judge Leonard Perry Edwards and recipient of the National Center for State Courts Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence best describes this unique dichotomous leadership when he said “. . . we have to get off the bench and work in the community. We have to ask these agencies in the community to work together to support our efforts so that the orders we make on the bench can be fulfilled. We have to be champions of collaboration.”

A judge’s collaborative efforts to connect the bench and community increases the effectiveness of juvenile justice. When this occurs, the kid, victim and community win. This is what we call Balance and Restorative Justice.

Applying the JDAI core strategies in 2001, the judges in Clayton County, Ga., became conveners. We created a juvenile justice cooperative that meets bi-annually or at anytime if needed to address juvenile justice issues, including detention reform.

In 2003, the cooperative was presented with horrendous data showing a 2,000 percent increase in school referrals since the introduction of police on school campus — and 91 percent of which were misdemeanor offenses including school fights, disrupting public school and disorderly conduct. Even worse was the impact out-of-school suspensions and arrests were having on graduation rates — an all time low of 58 percent.

The cooperative agreed to tackle this issue. Members asked me to convene the school superintendent and chiefs of police. I did. They came.

I included others as well. The NAACP was invited because of the racial disparities inherent in zero tolerance policies. Social services and mental health because of the need to assess and provide family functional type services to disruptive kids and parents as an alternative to suspension and arrest and to stop chronic disruptive conduct. A couple parents and students because they are most affected.

I asked the executive director of the Children and Youth Coordinating Council — our state Advisory Group for Georgia — to facilitate the meetings. The role of the judge is to convene, not facilitate — at least on this issue. The facilitator should be neutral and I couldn’t. My court was affected by these referrals. The docket was overburdened, intake overwhelmed and probation caseloads too high.

I got one vote. I didn’t get everything I wanted. That was good. I think the others respected me for that.

It took us nine months to hammer out a written protocol. We had some heated discussion. We learned a lot about each other. What we do, how we do it, and the pains we go through in doing it. It was hard, but good. We are better for it. We are truly a cooperative.

School referrals have since fallen 78 percent. Graduation increased 21 percent. Serious weapons on campus fell 70 percent. Youth of color referred to court went down 60 percent.

Now we travel to other places to teach this process of collaboration. We go as a team — school, police and court — to Alabama, Indiana, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Kentucky, North Carolina, Montana, and other states. We did not go without first getting judicial acceptance. The judges must agree to lead. They must accept their convening role or we don’t come.

These judges — as with most judges — were already friendly to reducing detention. Judges want to do right for the kid, family and community. The question is “How?” It’s just not good enough in our business of fixing kids to be in favor of it. When kids arrested on campus are twice as likely not to graduate and four times more likely to appear in court, it is not enough to divert school referrals. The damage is already done.

It’s not enough to be passive/aggressive on this issue — aggressive in speech but passive in leadership. It is a waste of our unique role to influence stakeholders to do what is right for our kids, families, victims and community.

More judges are leading their communities to make changes in their respective systems –reducing unnecessary school referrals. They have sustained the traditional role of the judge on the bench — the one grounded in the rule of law and due process — while simultaneously breathing life into the non-traditional, but equally important, role of off-the-bench collaboration.


Amid Continuing Controversy, Beyond Scared Straight Set to Begin Second Season

beyond-scared-straight_320The second season of “Beyond Scared Straight” begins Thursday night and with it come renewed questions about its effectiveness. The reality program follows at-risk teens as they are threatened, screamed at, and harassed by prison inmates in an attempt to get them to change their ways. The show was A&E Network’s most watched debut in its history with 3.7 million viewers.

As JJIE reported at the time of the show’s debut in January, juvenile justice experts are concerned the show may be sending the wrong message. They point to studies that say scared straight-style programs are not only ineffective, but also counter-productive.

Joe Vignati is the head of justice programs at the Governor’s Office for Children and Families in Georgia. In January, he wrote in an op-ed on JJIE.org that “the research is clear, once the trauma of Scared Straight has worn off, meta-analysis shows that this intervention actually INCREASES the odds of offending compared to a no-treatment control group.”

scared_straight_seriesThe program’s producer, Arnold Shapiro, claims the studies are wrong. He says current scared straight programs incorporate counseling along with the yelling making them more beneficial.

“Academic studies don’t work,” Shapiro told JJIE in January.  “It’s all about follow-up.  I’ve done more follow-up than anyone. Scared Straight: 20 Years Later is the longest study ever done.”

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges issued a statement in January claiming, “’Beyond Scared Straight’ misrepresents the effectivenesss of such interventions with youthful offenders . . . It is clear these types of interventions as portrayed are neither developmentally appropriate nor trauma-informed.”

Scared Straight! Graduate Plays Starring Role in Cold Case Crime

Angelo Speziale
Angelo Speziale

Angelo Speziale may be the most infamous graduate of Scared Straight! As a scrawny 16-year-old, he appeared in the original Scared Straight! documentary filmed at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison in 1978.  Now he’s back–serving 25-to-life in Rahway for the 1982 rape and murder of a teenage girl who lived next door to him.

Proponents of “Scared Straight” claim the program literally scares kids away from a life of crime.  In a follow-up show called Scared Straight: 20 Years Later, Speziale echoed this, claiming the experience changed him.  Apparently not enough.  He was arrested for shoplifting in 2005 and a DNA sample linked him to the 30-year-old cold case murder for which he was convicted in 2010.  A New Jersey law enforcement source confirms Angelo Speziale is the same person who appeared in both documentaries.

Here is a clip from Scared Straight: 20 Years Later which aired in 1998. Speziale appears at 8:45.

Speziale may become a poster child for groups opposing A&E’s new series Beyond Scared Straight, who say the program is ineffective and does more harm than good.

scared_straight_seriesA petition by the Campaign for Youth Justice is calling on A&E to yank Beyond Scared Straight off the cable channel. The petition says the show is promoting “the spread of a noxious program” and may be in violation of federal law, citing portions of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s  [OJJDP] Compliance Manual.

The petition is also asking that A&E do a better job of educating viewers on the shortcomings of the “Scared Straight” approach. The show follows at-risk kids as they are confronted by prison inmates who try to scare them into turning their lives around.  About 300 people have signed the online petition and they are not alone in opposing Beyond Scared Straight.

Two Justice Department officials have written an op-ed piece describing scared straight programs as “not only ineffective but potentially harmful” to the kids involved.  The op-ed appears in Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun, written by OJJDP Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and Laurie O. Robinson, from the Office of Justice Programs.  They say that, “when it comes to our children,” policymakers and parents should “follow evidence, not anecdote.”

As JJIE reported earlier this week, The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is also calling on A&E to present the facts about Beyond Scared Straight. Last month juvenile crime experts told JJIE.org the show may generate more crime.

Courtesy of A&E
Courtesy of A&E

Beyond Scared Straight producer, Arnold Shapiro, has said he’s never read any of the studies, but claims the research is wrong.  He believes follow-ups are the best indicator of success with the “Scared Straight” approach and points to the success of kids from his original 1978 documentary, “Scared Straight!”  He’s apparently not talking about Angelo Speziale.

Amid this mounting criticism, one “Scared Straight” program in Rhode Island was suspended after administrators learned children as young as 8 were involved.  The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Family decided that Scared Straight techniques could be “traumatizing” for someone that young, according to the Providence Journal.

Despite what the experts say, public comments about the show appear mostly positive.  Comments posted at JJIE.org and A&E’s online discussion board run the gamut from desperate parents with troubled kids, willing to try anything, to get-tougher advocates who think the show doesn’t go far enough in confronting kids with the grim realities of prison.  Here’s a sample:

Dee: “I have a 16 year old nephew that is uncontrolable [sic] at this point.  He needs to see this first hand.”

Jalila Hood: “I am a deaf Single mom who raising my kids by myself they’re very disrespectful and out of control….i need that help especially for my son he will be 13 this year he has done shoplifting and hasn’t gotten caught yet?”

Foodcritic: “This show is too mild and they need to raise the stakes to wake these hoodlum kids up.”

JJIE staff actually tried to contact some of the most desperate-sounding authors by return email.  So far, no one has responded.

The controversy has not hurt Beyond Scared Straight.  The show set a ratings record for the A&E Network with 3.8 million viewers when it debuted on January 13.  “We could not be more proud to have undertaken this groundbreaking series,” Bob DeBitetto, President of A&E told the Hollywood Reporter, “and the audience response is extremely rewarding.

Judge Michael Key Targets Zero Tolerance, Legal Orphans, Crossover Cases and More on National Stage

LaGrange—Judge Michael Key is a hometown boy, a son of  the cotton mill village where he played rhythm guitar in a rock-and-roll band on Saturday nights and went to a Southern Baptist Church on Sundays. He was headed off to Emory University’s law school before he ever met a lawyer.

“Back then people just didn’t go from the mill village to being a lawyer,” he says.

For 31 years, Key (LaGrange High School, class of ’68) has been back home practicing law. For 21 of those years, he’s also been a part-time juvenile court judge.

Now the hometown boy has a national platform. As president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Key, 61, is a leader and spokesman for colleagues all over the country. He was sworn in on July 20.

Key—like other juvenile court judges—sees children at some of the worst times of their lives. Some are before him accused of crimes; others are victims of abuse or neglect, known in Georgia as deprivation.

Dealing with children is different than with adults, he says. In Superior Court, when a verdict is rendered, “the case is over and it’s on to the next case. That’s not the way it works in juvenile court.”

Federal law requires continued oversight of deprivation cases; as far as Key is concerned, moral law requires ongoing involvement in delinquency cases. Key reviews every child on probation every four months just to see how their lives are going.

“It’s not our job—and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way—just to call balls and strikes as we see them,” he says. “It’s our job to solve the problem. We see cases not just at one point in time but over a period of time. Hopefully we can resolve the issues.”

Often lines are blurred between delinquency and deprivation. “In deprivation, the parents are presented as the problem, but you can’t ignore the children in the process,” he says. “In delinquency, the child is presented to the court as the problem, but in most cases you can’t solve the problems without involving parents. In both cases you should have total family engagement.”

Many children are “crossover,” or “dual jacket” cases, so-called because they have file folders as both victims and delinquents. Unfortunately, the cases are usually dealt with separately, Key says. “The fact that we call them crossover youth suggests one of the problems we have,” he says. “You shouldn’t be crossing over within the same system.”

The National Council has a committee studying how to handle crossover cases more holistically.

The point, Key often tells audiences at workshops, is that “we want to be sure that every child is in care who needs to be in care—and not one child more.” It’s a philosophy he applies to foster care, probation and incarceration. The results in Troup County are evident in the statistics.

“I was talking with the chief probation officer and a couple of other staff members yesterday,” Key said earlier this month, “and our numbers are really low of kids under supervision. That’s deliberate. We’ve worked hard to get it that way. We’ve got the kids on probation that we need on probation, and we can spend time with those kids and give them services. . . .On the deprivation side, we have reduced, over 5 1/2 years, the number of kids in foster care in Troup County from 223 to 46. We got the numbers down because we worked the cases.”

Key has been a model to other judges, says Sharon Hill, a former juvenile judge who is now executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Appleseed. “He’s always cared deeply for the families and children before him. He’s in the forefront of best practices. I always looked to Judge Key for the right way to do things.”

Judge F. Bryant Henry, Jr., of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges, calls Key “a tireless advocate for improving the way we do our work to improve the lives of families and children.”
“He’s very generous in sharing his experience and expertise,” Henry says, and, “he’s very innovative in trying new things that would improve the processes we use, and the outcomes.”

Michelle Barclay, assistant director of the Office of Children, Families and Courts under Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts, has known him for about 15 years. “He’s got a lot of compassion,” she says. “One reason people are so attracted to him is there’s this part of him that’s so empathetic.”

Key expressed his empathy for children in thoughts he jotted down after a national conference:

“Their belongings in a bag, their hearts on a sleeve or tucked securely away,

Their futures not their own but held in the hands of those who do not know them.

Their worlds asunder; insecurity and mistrust their constant companions.

They come to us looking for answers, for understanding, for hope, for resolution.

What we give them will determine who they are and who they will forever be.

Equally as important, what they become because of their having passed our way will define our lives and our place in history.”

Because Key is always trying to improve, he’s willing to listen to other people’s points of view and even to change his mind, Barclay says. “He’s not wishy-washy but will moderate the way he’s thinking.”

Key says one opinion he’s changed is about incarcerating all kids convicted of drug and weapons charges. “We were putting some of our kids too deep into the system and doing more harm than good,” he says. The county was operating a diversion program for juveniles with misdemeanors. A friend convinced Key to extend it to some more serious offenses.

“A lot of kids caught in their first drug offense do not belong in the juvenile court system,” he says. As for weapons in schools, “zero tolerance is a mistake. It’s a mistake from the school’s perspective. It’s a mistake from the court’s perspective.”

Extending the opportunity for diversion fits with another Key belief—that courts should be the least intrusive and the least restrictive possible. That means, he says, that courts should try to “support families, not supplant families” and “to the greatest extent possible, let children be children and let families be families.”

As president of the National Council, Key, already a popular speaker, can have greater influence on national attitudes. It’s not the kind of office “where we have a platform we want to conclude in a year,” he says. Nevertheless, he is focusing on some areas of concern.

One is internal. Key, who has an M.B.A., is looking at the operations of the council. He’s also appointed committees to study military families in the justice system, and legal orphans.

“There are so many soldiers coming back from war,” he says.  “At one time all soldiers lived in concentrated areas. Now that the National Guard is being deployed so much, when those people come back they’re not at Ft. Benning . They’re living in Troup County, Carroll County, Meriwether County and all these other counties where our judges are not as used to dealing with military law issues, military pay issues, military retirement issues.”

Military families bring “unique issues of family violence, deprivation, delinquency,” he says. “Particularly when they go to war, it makes those issues even more difficult to serve.”

“Legal orphans” are children whose parents’ rights have been terminated but who have not been adopted. Some have grown up with no permanent placement.

“Each of the last three or four years, we in Georgia have had over 100 children age out of foster care without a permanent family,” Key says. “We’ve cut off all legal connections to any family on this earth, and now they’re adults.”

Six to eight states, including Georgia, will be involved in a pilot program to address the problem, Key said.

The National Council, under Key’s leadership, will also continue efforts to ensure that community-based services are in place for status offenders—juveniles whose crimes, such as truancy or running away would not be illegal for adults.

“The judges don’t like to lock children up just for sake of locking them up, whether status offenders or otherwise,” he says, “but we have been denied services to meet the needs of our children.”

Key still practices law at Key & Gordy, a general interest law firm in downtown LaGrange. “Being a lawyer makes me a better judge,” he says, “and being a judge makes me better lawyer.”

Although he still “loves” both roles, he says he would like—someday—to be a full-time judge.

In juvenile court, of course.

Michelle Barclay: Judge Key Takes Oath at NCJFCJ

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office to which I have been elected, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and promulgate the ideals and philosophy of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.”

With that solemn oath, Judge Michael Key of Troup County, GA became the new President of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Supreme Court of Georgia Justice P. Harris Hines administered the oath July 20 in San Diego at the organization’s 73rd annual conference.

In accepting his new responsibilities, Judge Key spoke about the implications of the new federal law that permits young people to remain in foster care longer, until they reach 21 years. At the same time, the new law has increased the requirements for keeping siblings together.  He said efforts to reduce the number of children in foster care must put safety first. And he called for a new focus on reducing the number of the nation’s “legal orphans” – those who age out of foster whose parents had their rights terminated.

Among those present for the swearing-in were a number of Judge Key’s colleagues, including officers from the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges. Juvenile Court Judge Aaron Cohn of Muscogee County, GA delivered a taped inspirational message.  Judge Key’s younger son, daughter-in-law and three young grandchildren also delivered a taped message that was a tad less solemn and included a song to grandpa.


Michelle Barclay is director of the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Committee on Justice for Children at the Administrative Office of the Courts.


Georgia Judge Heads National Council

Judge Michael Key of Troup County, Georgia was sworn in Tuesday as the new president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges at their annual conference in San Diego.

Key has been a juvenile court judge since 1989, and is past president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges.  He has been honored twice with the President’s Award, and was named Child Advocate of the Year by the Young Lawyer Division of the Georgia State Bar Association.  Judge Key sits on the bench part time, and is a partner in the law firm of Key and Gordy, in LaGrange.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has 2,000 members and is based at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Read the full news release here.