Week 3: Inside our juvenile justice system

November 6th, 2012 by Briana Cummings

Two weeks ago I visited my client at Juvenile Hall. After locking my belongings in a locker in the deserted visitors’ waiting area, I was shepherded through four sets of locked doors by a female voice on the intercom. Inside, the voice told me to freeze until the transfer of one of the youths at the far end of the corridor was completed.

I caught my first glimpse of Julian in Unit 2, where he was sitting among a group of teens in navy blue uniforms in a small room off of a large, empty central space. I walked toward the room and a man sitting outside it gestured toward one of the tables in the room. Two boys stood, hesitantly. “Julian,” the man said to them a second time, and through the glass wall of the room I saw one of the boys point to himself and mouth, “Me?,” in a tentative, earnest gesture.

The boy who peeled himself from the group and walked toward me was slender and below average height. His manner was deferential and polite. He was shy but looked me in the eyes when I spoke. When it was his turn to speak, he seemed very engaged, somewhat nervous. He spoke with a marked stutter.

His background is unremarkable for a place like this: divorced parents, incarcerated father. African-American. Living “couch to couch” for at least the last several years. A passing reference in his record to a diagnosis of several learning disorders in elementary school (which immediately manifested in visible form when I met him). A failing high school transcript. He is here on a five-year sentence for his first offense.

As we sat down to talk, I was very conscious that the next hour we had together might be the only hour of real peer-to-peer interaction with an adult that he has had in a while. So, although I wanted to explain the appeals process to him and talk a little bit about his case, the main purpose of my visit was to (1) learn about his needs or desires (e.g., re: his home placement, schooling) that I may be able to help with and (2) counsel him on the importance of staying on good behavior while in custody — including showing that he has taken responsibility for his actions, establishing a good relationship with his probation officer, and, above all, not reoffending, which could extend his sentence or land him in CYA. (His widened eyes made me wonder if anyone had explained any of this to him before, in the many months he’d been in detention. “Oh no,” he said, with conviction in his voice. “I’m done with all that. I don’t want any more trouble.”)

Neither of these functions — advocacy writ large or counseling — is an activity we, his appeals lawyers, get compensated for. Both functions, however, seem so much more immediately critical to his well-being than the appeal the state is paying us to do, an appeal that has relatively little chance of changing anything for Julian.

I asked him about the incident that got him here and for the first time heard his account of events. It was consistent with but significantly expanded upon the police testimony offered at his hearing about the police’s roughness (physical and verbal) and his fear during his arrest. Frustratingly, there is not much I can do with his narrative, since it is not on the record, though it very well could have swayed the judge’s decision if she had heard it at his hearing. Because, truth be told, justice is not blind. Or, if it is, it is too often blind to things that matter, like whether Julian had a stable home and a school able to meet his educational needs, and not blind to things that don’t matter, like the color of his skin. (I did not see a single white youth in the facility that day — a facility that serves a major metropolitan area.)

Julian’s judge is not the only “blind” adult in his life. After the judge placed him into the guilty bin on the basis of a number of factors limited by the sometimes arbitrary lines of legal relevance, his teachers at Juvenile Hall have continuously denied him the individualized education plan he so visibly needs because, according to Julian, he hasn’t been able to produce his old paperwork. Julian lives in a system where youths are in or out, guilty or not guilty, special needs or not, good or bad, smart or dumb, but none of the myriad things in between. They are not treated as complex and nuanced and varied and ever-changing — i.e., as individualized.

What he needs most right now is not a lawyer but, like every young person, mentors and teachers (in the broadest sense of those words). He wants to get his GED and establish a career. He wants a job that will make him happy (“Someone told me, ‘Don’t get a job for the money. Pick a job that will make you happy, and the money will follow.'”). He doesn’t know what that would be. “One day I think I want to write poetry, the next day I think I want to be a businessman, then I think I might want to make movies, the next day I think I want to be a firefighter. Sometimes I think I would like to open up my own store.” (I told him the attorney I work for — his appeals lawyer of record — started her own practice. His ears perked up. “Really?”)

He wants to set up a home with his girlfriend and daughter. He wants to buy a house by the time he’s 25 and pay off the mortgage by the time he’s 40. He wants a place with a guest room so he can have visitors, a place that provides a sense of constancy and stability. He wants to create something with his life and have something to pass on to the next generation.

To do these things he needs guidance, role models, mentors, cheerleaders, critics, and supporters.

I try to serve a mentoring role for him as much as possible in the short time I have with him, offering whatever parental advice I can think of: to see what you like to do you have to try out doing it for a while (he’s already with me on that one); there is nothing you don’t know that you can’t learn how to do (he seems very doubtful); smarts are not something you are born with, they are something you acquire by applying yourself; don’t fear failure. I told him above all to reach out to people and use them as resources. (“How do I do that?” he asks. “I’m shy. I don’t even know what to say to people when I’m talking to them. ‘That’s a nice shirt’? I mean, how do I do that?” I told him it’s hard at first, but that it’s something he has to learn how to do.) I feel like I’m packing a lot in to few short minutes, but I hope that he takes some of it with him. Even if he does, it feels so hopelessly inadequate.

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