Cops and Children Exposed to Violence

Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. How Many Children are Abused, Neglected or Exposed to Violence? The […]

Author Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. How Many Children are Abused, Neglected or Exposed to Violence? The […]


Most States Still Deny Juveniles Access to Counsel, 50 Years After Gault Ruling, Report Finds

A National Juvenile Defense Council report finds “large discrepancies” across the U.S. in the guidelines and procedures used to determine juveniles’ access to a lawyer. counsel. In the report, entitled, “Access Denied,” it calls on state authorities to “recognize interrogation as a critical stage of juvenile proceedings requiring a publicly funded defense lawyer to protect children from potential abuses of authority.”

Fifty years after the Supreme Court ruling that recognized children’s right to due process and legal representation, the National Juvenile Defense Council has issued a report that takes a granular look at the juvenile justice system across the states.

“Defense representation for youth is indispensable. Unfortunately, state laws and practices largely tell a different story,” the NJDC concludes.

“Though every state has a basic structure to provide attorneys for children, few states or territories adequately satisfy access to counsel for young people.” 

According to the NJDC, the only barrier to ensuring juvenile due process nationwide is individual states’ lack of interest in making it a priority.

The report found that only 11 states provide all juveniles accused of a crime with a defense attorney; and nowhere in the United States are children guaranteed an attorney during interrogation, despite the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that children must have “the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against [them].”

Moreover, 36 states actually charge for a “free” lawyer, the report found, with expenses ranging from “$10 for an application fee to over $1,000 for an attorney’s services—an attorney who is supposed to be appointed at public expense.”

Finally, the NJDC found that children across the U.S. are waiving their rights without even knowing it. In 43 states, children can waive their right to counsel without ever speaking to an attorney; often without the knowledge they are doing so.

Paternalism over Due Process

In most states, a child’s right to counsel hinges on his or her parents’ income, with no presumption of eligibility for free legal defense. There are a number of ways that this system undermines childrens’ rights, the report finds. Parents can fall outside of the eligibility threshold–on average, around 125% of poverty level– but still not have enough income to hire a private attorney. According to 2017 poverty guidelines, the child of a single parent earning over $20,300 a year could be denied a public defense attorney.

The process of determining eligibility varies widely, according to the report–and in Louisiana, one public defender told the National Juvenile Defender Center that “a child is simply asked if he or she receives free or reduced-price lunch at school, and if so, counsel is appointed.”

Private attorneys also face the continual risk of conflicted loyalties–to their client, the child; and the parents, who foot the bill.

Finally, this system presumes that parents will always act in their child’s best interest. Parents can waive their child’s right to counsel even if they can afford a private attorney.

“Unbridled Discretion”

In all but the 11 states where children automatically have “presumption of eligibility” for free legal defense, NJDC found large discrepancies in the guidelines and procedures used to determine access to counsel. A 2015 DOJ investigation into the St. Louis family court system concluded that the lack of uniform procedures was a “contributing factor to the high rates of children who waived their right to counsel in St. Louis County.”

Furthermore, according to the NJDC, “arbitrary eligibility determinations also contribute to the disparate treatment of children of color, who are more likely than their white peers to be denied their right to an attorney — and thus, denied access to important constitutional protections.”

Arrives Too Late, Ends Too Early

Statutory language varies across the states, according to the NJDC, and in some jurisdictions, the right to counsel only begins when a child enters the court for the first time. Only in the state of Illinois does the law require appointment of an attorney during interrogation (and only in certain circumstances).

The NJDC calls on states to “recognize interrogation as a critical stage of juvenile proceedings requiring a publicly funded defense lawyer to protect children from potential abuses of authority.”

Earlier appointment of counsel would also give attorneys time to prepare, whereas now, they often meet their juvenile clients for the first time in the courtroom.

The report found that children held in detention are more likely to be appointed counsel before their first hearing, thanks to the dogged work of juvenile justice advocates around the country. But the practice is very uneven, and “some youth meet their lawyer at the detention hearing while others wait in detention for days before ever seeing a lawyer.”

Where attorneys did have adequate time to meet with their clients, the NJDC found, it was due to the discretion of “flexible judges and court staff.”

In at least five jurisdictions, attorneys reported that their meetings are often not private, breaching ethical duties of confidentiality. And interviews that take place over the phone or by video “severely inhibit advocacy and the ability to develop the trust necessary to adequately represent children,” according to the report.

In states where the public defender’s office is responsible for initiating the appointment of counsel for children, and not the courts, the NJDC found that more children have the opportunity to meet with their lawyers and establish a rapport before they appear in court, concluding that “such successes suggest that defender offices are best situated to appoint lawyers for children.”

In the majority of states, youth have limited or no right to counsel during most stages of post-disposition, according to the NJDC– including appeals, probation, disciplinary hearings, and confinement conditions.

Liberty At a Price

In the 36 states that charge a fee for a public defender appointment, the NJDC found “huge discrepancies in how often or whether they are enforced.” In some jurisdictions, fees are always waived; in others, they are always enforced.

As a result of these fees, a child with no income of his or her own can be denied due process over a $50 fee.

“Charging fees for a publicly funded attorney — the very advocate through whom such protections become accessible — renders the right to counsel meaningless for children,” concludes the NJDC.

Waiving Their Rights

43 states allow children to waive their rights to an attorney without consulting one first. According to the NJDC, “the frequency and reasoning behind waiver of counsel is limited and likely under-representative of the crisis” because only three states collect this kind of public data. Based on interviews, however, the report found that waiver of counsel “is occurring at higher rates in rural and remote areas,” and in some places, it is “routine.”

By contrast, in the few states that do have a statutory requirement to consult with an attorney, “young people are waiving their right to counsel infrequently, if at all.”

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers are welcome to comment.


Gault at 50: the Unfinished Business of Juvenile Justice

As the landmark Supreme Court ruling, “In re Gault,” marks its 50th anniversary this week, advocates reflect on how it transformed the juvenile justice system—and what remains to be done.

A landmark decision that merged jurisprudence, common sense and fortunate timing to reshape juvenile justice and give children many of the same due process rights long held by adults charged with crimes is a half-century old this week.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling, issued on May 15, 1967, In re Gault, found for the first time that juvenile court cases are adversarial criminal proceedings. That gave youthful offenders the right to a defense lawyer, formal rules of criminal procedure and a chance to present their side of the story in an open hearing.

The decision reversed decades of practice in which juvenile judges were said to be benevolent custodians empowered to look after the best interest of children when their parents were unwilling or unable to keep them out of trouble. Sometimes the reality meant locking them behind bars for long stretches without representation or other basic rights.

In re Gault stopped that, and was applauded by attorneys and children’s advocates at the time.

It continues to be the subject of debate and review today.

Robert L. Listenbee, then head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, discusses Gault at a Washington DC forum last year. Photo by Sara Barr/Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

The anniversary will be marked by symposiums and forums all week, including events in Washington sponsored by Georgetown University and the National Juvenile Defender Center, among others.

“It’s important to celebrate Gault, and never forget how important the right to counsel is, not just in court but at every step in the process, even after incarceration if needed,” said Liz Ryan, president of Youth First, an advocacy group focused on ending youth incarceration.

“At the same time, I think we have to understand how much more needs to be done, both in terms of access to counsel, and making sure lawyers are trained in juvenile law.”

By today’s standards, the Gault sentence from an Arizona court can seem a horrible case of judicial cruelty. Gerald Francis Gault, 15, was sentenced to spend up to six years in a violent, notorious youth detention center after being accused of making an obscene phone call to a neighbor.

An adult charged with a similar crime would have received a $50 fine and up to two months in prison, said David Tanenhaus, law professor and author of “The Constitutional Rights of Children.”

Gault was on probation at the time for being with another teenager who stole a neighbor’s purse, although he was not accused of doing anything wrong in that crime. He never received a trial for the obscene phone call case, and there is no transcript or even a record of what happened during his appearances before Judge Robert E. McGhee.

One certainty is that McGhee questioned the teen without telling him he didn’t have to answer. Gault is said to have confessed to making the calls along with a friend of his. His parents were not present in court or even notified about the charges before he made the confession, according to Supreme Court records, Arizona court files and a legal brief filed on Gault’s behalf.

But a closer look at In re Gault shows the issues it raised weren’t new.  In fact, courts around the country were wrestling with the question of whether the best approach to doing what was best for the child gave states the right to ignore due process.

Gerald Gault as an adult, years after the decision on his case, with his attorney, Amelia Lewis. Photo courtesy Peter Cahill/JJIE.

“The issue that a boy deserves the same level of justice and rights as a man charged with a crime was not invented that year,” said Peter Cahill, an attorney who tried juvenile cases in front of McGhee and who, from 2003 to 2015, served as judge of the same Gila County, Arizona court where Gerald Gault was sentenced.

“There are cases going back to the 1800s saying the same thing. Just a few months earlier the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that even if a juvenile is not entitled to all his constitutional rights, they are entitled to the essential elements of due process and fair treatment,” Cahill said.

“But in Gault, you had so many different elements that came together to even get this to the Supreme Court.”

Gault’s case became a national issue in large part because of his lengthy sentence at the Arizona Industrial School For Boys and what Cahill called a “pissed-off father” who wanted his son home with his two working parents in their Arizona trailer.

That passion, according to interviews with legal scholars and a review of records and archival files at the National Archives and at Georgetown University’s Law Center, started a chain of events that changed juvenile justice forever.

And at its center, in an era when men dominated the legal world, were a tenacious woman attorney in Arizona and a brilliant female Holocaust survivor in New York City who shaped the case with grit, empathy and sweat, bringing some of the top legal East Coast minds into the journey.

A Constant Balancing Act

As the Gault decision turns 50, evidence of its impact is visible in the vast network of juvenile courts, judges and attorneys trained to balance the best interests of the child within the Constitution and a web of protections unheard of when Gerald Gault and a friend made that fateful call to a neighbor, identified in court simply as Mrs. Cook.

In the past decade, youth crime, incarceration rates and recidivism rates have all dropped dramatically, bolstered by research and advances in child psychology.

Still, many of the same basic challenges facing juveniles in court remain. Lower-income families make up the bulk of the juvenile court population, judges still wrestle with the best way to get youth on track and advocates work tirelessly to give youth a voice.

Before Gault, juvenile court judges had great leeway to jail or punish children as they saw fit, as long as the measures were intended to get youth on the right path. Constitutional protections never entered into the equation.

Supporters of this approach included Justice Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court’s lone dissenter in an 8-1 decision. He argued — as did the attorneys for Arizona in its legal briefs — that states play a paternal role when children go to court. Since states are not seeking to punish the youth, but to rehabilitate him, constitutional protections and due process not only weren’t necessary, but were a harmful distraction in the pursuit of helping children, Stewart wrote in his dissent.

By the time Gault reached the Supreme Court, the notion of a patriarchal state juvenile justice system was already eroding. Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the court majority, shot it down for good.

“It was a very long opinion, well thought out, and Fortas really relied on social science at the time to push back against this fiction that a state is somehow working to protect the child and not to punish him,” said Tanenhaus, a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law.

“Fortas took into account the damage that takes place when you incarcerate children, and at the long-term effects on a child.”

Fortas was particularly critical of what he called misguided attempts by juvenile court judges to replace constitutional legal rights with their own opinions as to what was best for a youth. More often than not, Fortas wrote, those attempts fail:

Making the Case

Less than six months before Fortas issued the final Gault ruling, the case was argued before the Supreme Court in December 1966. A team of young, talented lawyers, led by American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ken Dorsen, made many of the same arguments Fortas would embrace. Gault’s team had timing on its side, fortunate to be in front of the liberal court of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had pushed aggressively to expand due process rights at all levels of the court system, Tanenhaus said in a recent interview.

Arizona Supreme Court ruling, 1966. Courtesy JJIE


Read Document

Another factor working in favor of Gault was the harsh sentence, which was noted in the Supreme Court decision and legal briefs. Dorsen told the court at oral arguments that Gault was still in the youth detention center when the case came before the high court.

But that wasn’t the case, according to Cahill and archived records. The teenager had been released after six difficult and abusive months in lockup, Cahill said, although Dorsen, operating on the East Coast, was never informed of that.

Sitting next to Dorsen at the court arguments was Amelia Lewis, an Arizona attorney who took on the case when Gault’s father Paul, a mechanic, and mother Marjorie brought their last $100 to her and asked for help getting their son Gerald home, according to Cahill and archived case records and notes. The family had nearly run out of appeals and hope.

The dogged Lewis took on the case, enlisting the local ACLU and, eventually, the New York headquarters to help pursue the Gault appeal. She was so sure of her ability to win the case that, in a telling detail of the times, she wrote to the Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court asking if it was proper for a woman to wear a hat during oral arguments, according to Cahill and archives.

Hats are not allowed, Lewis was told.

Attorney Gertrud Mainzer was not present. Cahill, Tanenhaus and other legal historians consider her the unsung hero whose legal skill greatly aided the case. She first noticed its potential to change juvenile law when it arrived unsolicited at the New York ACLU offices, where she worked as an attorney, Cahill said.

She was instrumental in compiling information needed for the team’s Supreme Court brief, and easily handled and processed large batches of material in the weeks leading up to the hearing.

Mainzer was also a survivor of the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which affected her work on Gault. Decades later she discussed her ordeal and its impact on her approach to Gault in a taped interview. She later became a family court judge in New York.

“Traute [her nickname] was the most interesting and inspiring person I came across in all my research,” Tanenhaus said. “She brought her perspective as a survivor, and she was the only one who could talk about the role and conditions of imprisonment have on children. She could discuss the long-term damage in a way that I think made a difference.”

The Gault Case Today

The decision in Gault was embraced quickly, immediately changing the way juvenile courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys operated, advocates said. In fact, the change and half-century passage of time means there are few if any lawyers and judges practicing today who have ever experienced a time when children weren’t entitled to legal representation,

But virtually everyone in the field understand and appreciates the importance of Gault, said Ryan, of Youth First. They also understand that it must be a stepping stone to even greater protections for children in court.

“I also think there has to be an understanding that having access to counsel shouldn’t mean a lawyer who is so overwhelmed he can’t adequately defend a case. If a lawyer is handling 600 cases, there can’t be the appropriate level of attention that Gault should guarantee,” Ryan said.

“So yes, this anniversary is a good reminder of how far things have come, but it’s very, very important that we keep working to make sure there is more access, more competent access, at every stage of the juvenile court process.”

The essay above is a slightly edited version of a story published yesterday by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Readers’ comments are welcome.




Police Get Access to Milwaukee Juvenile GPS Data

The move comes as officials push to address crime on multiple fronts with a focus on auto thefts and carjackings. “The best chance we have to keep an offender out of prison is to properly use the juvenile justice system,” said Police Chief Edward Flynn.

Milwaukee police will have real-time access to location data of juveniles wearing court-ordered GPS monitoring devices under a new agreement with Milwaukee County. The move comes as officials push to address crime on multiple fronts with a particular focus on auto thefts and carjackings. City and county officials are announcing the partnership today, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The best chance we have to keep an offender out of prison is to properly use the juvenile justice system,” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said. Information sharing will provide more accountability, he said. “The shortest cut to prison is for some young offender to have learned nothing from their juvenile experience,” Flynn said.

Last summer, Flynn and other police officials said part of their challenge curbing juvenile crime was not receiving real-time GPS tracking information from the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. Under the new agreement, the Police Department’s Fusion Intelligence Center and dispatch center can access the information in two circumstances. The first is if a youth has an “unauthorized violation,” or is found to have broken rules of their supervision by going outside a designated area. The second is if police have probable cause to arrest the youth for a new crime. “If it takes us days or even hours to locate an individual, a lot of negative things can happen in that period,” Mayor Tom Barrett said. Milwaukee police are using an algorithm-based methodology and taking into account factors like criminal history, social connections and “threat intelligence,” according to the agreement.



Dead at 23: The Tragedy of Ronald Freedom

A photographer’s search for the explanation of the death of a troubled young man he befriended gives him a lesson in the dysfunctions of America’s juvenile justice system.

“I’m free today, Richard. I’m breathing free air.”

That was three years ago. My friend Ronald Franklin had finally been released. Incarcerated since he was 13—and now, at 20, he was free.

The deck was stacked against Ronald, but a kid of such talent and enthusiasm had a shot. He started calling himself Ronald Freedom. He got a job parking cars at the airport and was living with his mother Carla Brinson — a 30-year crack addict now recovered.

But he was from Liberty City in Miami, and the odds are against you when you are born there. This is the setting for “Moonlight.” The film’s portrayal is accurate.

Carla had said — more than once —”I am almost glad Ronnie is in prison because out here, on the streets, he would be dead.”

They found Ronnie Franklin at 8:30 a.m. on April 1, a sunny, hot Florida Saturday. He had been in a lake for several days. Across the street from Home Depot, behind Target, CVS Pharmacy, Steak ‘n Shake, Starbucks, The Dollar Store—all the signs of American normalcy—was Davie Lake, where he was found floating.

Ronald Franklin

Gale Lewis, a senior supervising attorney for Miami Dade Public Defenders, a friend of Ronnie’s, mentioned she was having trouble getting calls returned from Detective Eddy Velazquez of the Davie Police Department, who was investigating the case.

After two weeks of calling and emailing the police department with no response, I finally got on a plane and went to Broward County, Florida.

[My efforts to see] the elusive Detective Velazquez  got the constant response —”He’s not here” — until finally, a sergeant told me that “unless you are family we don’t inform you about open cases.”

“Couldn’t you call and say exactly that?” I asked the sergeant. “After two weeks, is there any sense of courtesy to communicate?”

“It is an open investigation and our policy dictates we don’t talk about it. I am sure you understand. If it is an investigation, we have to have the medical examiner’s report. If there is the possibility it is a homicide, we don’t want to give information that might assist a suspect or anyone involved in the case.”

“Is it a homicide?”

“It is an open case and we can’t discuss it. I am sure you understand.”

“Why won’t you return the calls and email of the public defender?”

“We certainly don’t talk to any attorneys. As you can understand, we always have an adversarial position with them — they may be defending someone we are trying to bring a case against. I am sure you understand.”

I returned to California, and spoke to Gale, who was even more frustrated that there was no attempt to return a call.

“That’s garbage,” she said. “I speak with law enforcement all the time. What if I had information that is pertinent to the case? I knew Ronnie since he was 13. To not return a call and see if there is relevance to the case is unproductive and nothing that I have seen in many years of working with the public defender.”

‘Going Good’

When he was finally released, there were rough restarts for Ronald. You simply don’t spend all your teenage years incarcerated and walk out with the skills you need to survive in any institution, even college.

Florida detention and DOC [Department of Corrections] is far from perfect in helping kids gain skills, and returning to the same neighborhood presented problems.

Ronnie tried to keep his beats and his music going. He finally got a job working at Home Depot. He enrolled in a computer class. We bought him a laptop to help.

“It’s all good, Richard.” This was the message of the occasional calls.

Ronnie was fixated on his phone, as he had had nothing like it for the past seven years. It would ring, vibrate and light up on a regular basis. I had dinner with Ronnie a few months earlier at a nice restaurant in Miami.

**He ordered steak well done … because he heard someone do the same, but he wasn’t sure what it meant. His exposure to the world beyond Liberty City was limited, and in prison you take what’s given to you rather than order your preference.

There were cracks in the façade of stability. Ronnie’s mother and his sister had moved to “the Dakotas or somewhere like that.” But he said it was all good because there was a month left on the lease.

Later, I asked where he was staying.


I worked with Gale, his defense attorney, to try to get him housing. There was something specific for young men like him in Miami, but each time I inquired if he had gone there was an answer like, “I can’t take time off from work to meet with them.”

He was still staying “around.” Something was off.

No Answers But Silence

[My search for answers in Miami continued.]

I called the police chief’s office. After being quizzed as to why I was asking, I was told I would get a call from one of three public information officers. An hour later I received a call, again inquiring who I was and why I wanted the information.

I explained the history of myself, Ronnie, the public defender, Ronnie’s mother. Little penetrated.

Ronald in juvenile hall.

We live in a period when law enforcement, media and the general public have a very difficult road to navigate. This is far from when my dad was a cop in New York. My history was walking with my uniformed father, who knew everyone and was greeted with a smile.

We live in a different world. How much of it is of the making of a department that responds to every and all inquiry with silence? Communication is the first tool that has to be employed to create any trust.

The Faces of the “Expired”

I spoke to Carla, Ronnie’s mom, who now lives in Fargo, North Dakota. Her husband Junior identified the body, too decomposed for her to see.

“It don’t make sense, Richard,” she said. “They told me it looked like an accidental drowning, but his car was three or four miles away. He never used any drugs. There was a security camera on all the time at this manmade lake. The water never went up past my calf. It was only a foot or so deep. It don’t make sense and they won’t tell me more about it.”

When kids are released with ankle monitors from Miami Dade, they are shown a wall of 50 photocopies of faces with the word “EXPIRED” handwritten across the page. The images are shown to reinforce the consequences of deviating. Newly released young men view the “graduation” wall of their friends.

These were kids whose lives were extinguished within two years after being released from this institution. New kids are told that if they fall in with the same crowd that they were with upon entering juvie, their name and face would join this wall.

There is no understanding that the kids on the wall had not failed and lost their lives as a consequence. It is us and our institutions that have failed these kids.

This is a portrait of America that can’t be ignored. This can’t go unanswered.

The outcomes of these kids’ lives are predetermined by the ZIP codes of their birth.

I thought Ronnie was different. I thought he had caught a break and had the talent and ability to at least survive.

But Liberty City and the world Ronnie lived in took its ultimate toll. Ronald’s death goes down as another statistic. Another young black man from the urban ghetto — who had made his start in a broken home — evolved to years in juvie, then prison, parole and finally a shallow pond.

With no one to care, no one to report him missing. Alone.

My friend Ronnie. No longer breathing free air. Someone cries for you.

Richard Ross is a photographer, researcher and art professor based in Santa Barbara, California. His most recent work, the “In Justice” series of books, turns a lens on the placement and treatment of American juveniles. The essay above is a slightly abridged version of one published yesterday by the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Readers’ comments are welcome.


More States Are Raising the Age for Juvenile Crimes

Only six states will prosecute all youth under 18 as adults. States are continuing to raise the age for juvenile court jurisdiction, which supporters argue lowers taxpayer costs and reduces recidivism.

Texas state Rep. Gene Wu is frustrated. State legislatures around the U.S. are voting to treat 17-year-old offenders as juveniles while his own state remains in a shrinking — and he says wrongheaded — club that charges them as adults, no matter the crime, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Neighboring Louisiana acted last year, as did South Carolina, leaving just seven states nationwide that still prosecute all youth under 18 as adults. This month, New York made it six, joining the wave deciding that helping kids get their lives back on track is better than giving them a criminal record in the adult system. New York, which had automatically treated even 16-year-olds as adults, enacted a sweeping overhaul that included raising the age to 18, effective next year.

Yesterday, Wu and his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives voted by 82-62 to raise the age, giving supporters hope, although it faces an uncertain Senate fate. Similar legislative battles are playing out elsewhere. North Carolina’s House has passed a nearly identical measure, but it faces a potential state Senate roadblock, as does Texas. last month, Michigan’s House enacted the measure, but it died without making it to a Senate vote. In each state, opponents argued that reform measures would cost too much to implement, overrun juvenile justice court systems and could leave dangerous youth on the street. Supporters of the lower age say such fears are nonsense. They cite extensive studies that show the move lowers costs to taxpayers and drastically reduces recidivism rates.


How to Keep Kids Out of the Criminal Justice System

In La Crosse County, Wisconsin, the ‘System of Care’ focuses on schools—the place where police most often come into contact with juvenile offenders. One of a handful of similar programs around the country, it offers middle- and high school students therapy, workshops and counseling to address the kind of behavior that otherwise might have landed them in court.

When a middle school student in La Crosse, Wisconsin, swore at his teacher, he risked a criminal charge that would establish his juvenile record.

But instead of a referral to the juvenile justice system for disorderly conduct, he was accepted into a new program designed to address the root of his behavior and make it less likely to recur.

The program, which involved months of cognitive behavior, appeared to work. He hasn’t reoffended or faced discipline since for other misconduct.

Called “System of  Care,” the program is changing the way the county addresses juvenile crime since it was launched November 1.  One of only a handful in the country, it focuses on the place police most often came into contact with juvenile offenders:schools

Curt Teff, a La Crosse School District supervisor who helped develop the program, says the aim is to hold students “accountable” for their actions.

“It’s not about being soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime,” he said.

The collaboration that crosses agency lines spent years in development to address the county’s disproportionate juvenile arrest rate.

System of Care fills a gap between how schools handle misconduct and what the juvenile justice system provides by addressing [troublesome or acting-out] behavior without a ticket or arrest. Stakeholders believe that the program, while still in its infancy, is working, although the extent of its impact could take years to determine.

“If we didn’t do something different, we would continue to see the juvenile arrest rate climb and see more kids on supervision,” said Bridget Todd-Robbins, who oversees the System of Care.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce barriers to learning and to reduce the amount of referrals to juvenile justice.”

‘Call to action’

Between 1997 and 2006, La Crosse County’s juvenile arrest rate was higher than the state average and those of three similar-size counties, according to a study by the Carey Group, a consulting firm retained in 2008 to examine the country’s juvenile justice system–although few juveniles were committed to the Department of Corrections. The consultants also hinted that minority juveniles may be over-represented in the juvenile system.

“It was surprising and absolutely concerning,” said Mandy Bisek, who supervised the county’s Juvenile Justice Unit until taking over Justice Support Services. “It was a call to action.”

In 2013, stakeholders in the justice system, police, schools and community members formed the Juvenile Justice Arrest and Disproportionate Minority Contact Inter-Agency Task Force. State Department of Justice data revealed the arrest pattern continued in each year between 2007 and 2011.


While whites were the most-arrested racial group, black youths had the highest arrest rate each year and were nine times more likely to be arrested than whites.

The leading arrest charge was disorderly conduct.

About 62 percent of juvenile arrests occurred on weekdays and 25 percent of those were at public schools.

About one-third of cases referred to the criminal justice system resulted in the juvenile being counseled without formal charges. Juveniles were placed on supervision in about 16 percent of cases.

A majority of juveniles cited or referred for charges were not high-risk offenders; they engaged in impulsive behavior that’s typical of adolescent development, Teff said. But there are risks involved if a juvenile enters the justice system, including continued criminal behavior and a decreased chance of graduation.

The Inter-Agency Task force found that without a clear policy on the type of misconduct that warrants arrest and with few arrest alternatives, juveniles were being pushed into the system in a misguided approach to get them help.

It recommended creating a formalized agreement between schools, police and the juvenile system for clear guidelines on when to arrest a juvenile and when to offer a different intervention.

For guidance, the county turned to Clayton County (Ga.) Chief Judge Steven Teske, who helped establish the country’s first System of Care.

Juvenile arrests in Clayton County skyrocketed more than 1,000 percent between 1996 and 2003, after the school district stationed police inside schools. The problem, Teske said, was that officers had no alternatives to arrest.

“They acted like street cops on a school campus,” he said. “I saw all of these cases and juveniles being detained and I thought, ‘Something has to give. This isn’t right.’”


Research showed that arresting and jailing low-risk juvenile offenders increases their likelihood to reoffend and that many will age out of delinquent conduct, Teske said.

“Kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things,” he said. “And when we arrested them, we were contributing to making them worse.”

In  2003, when Clayton County adopted a memorandum of understanding between the court system, police and school district to reduce juvenile arrests by offering alternatives that held kids accountable while addressing the root cause of the misconduct, school arrests plummeted 54 percent in six months.

“It goes to show how many arrests were for minor offenses,” he said. “And that was the problem.”

By offering students workshops to address conflict and theft, drug treatment and wrap-around services for families, juvenile arrests in schools have fallen 71 percent since 2003, while graduation rates rose 30 percent, Teske said.

“The System of Care seeks to help kids who need it,” he said. “We identify causes for the behavior and match them with resources so they can develop coping skills that will help them function in school.”

The system

In La Crosse, the System of Care is built on a partnership involving the La Crosse School District, La Crosse police and the county juvenile justice system.  Students who skip school, steal, hit, damage property or are disorderly while on school property during school hours are eligible for the program.

Juveniles who commit those offenses while on supervision for other crimes are not.

The program is voluntary and requires consent from parents and victims. Each offender must undergo a risk and needs assessment that will determine what led to the behavior and how to correct it.

“Overall, they’re just kids,” Longfellow Middle School Associate Principal Jon Baudek said. “But there are kids making bad choices over and over again.”

Students may be offered counseling, mentoring, anger management training, drug treatment, mental health counseling and, along with their families, referrals to other services for ongoing support. System of Care’s  Todd-Robbins also is working with school staff to remove barriers to learning.

“It is not about excusing behavior,” Todd-Robbins said. “It’s about addressing behavior through skill development.”

Some 29 juveniles have enrolled in the System of Care between its November launch and late March.  Most of those accepted into the program are middle school students, and truancy, punishable by a citation, was the leading offense.

“I have kids who haven’t been to school yet this year,” she said.

The early results have been encouraging. Truant students are back in class and others who faced repeated referrals for discipline now have none.

Todd-Robbins hopes to establish the System of Care as a nonprofit organization so that it would be eligible for grant funding and could expand to neighboring school districts and include offenses students commit off school property.

To address disproportionate minority contact, school district administrators, teachers, social workers, police and others who come into contact with juveniles can participate in the La Crosse YWCA’s racial justice training series to recognize and change how personal biases and prejudice, even on a unconscious level, affect how they deal with kids.

“The issue isn’t always the kid, but how we’re perceiving the behavior,” said YWCA’s Social Justice and Advocacy Director Molly Hilligoss. “If we can look at how we react in our situation and realize our own biases, we can counteract those biases.

“Hopefully, we can continue to lessen the disproportionate minority contact and mitigate the bias.”

Anne Jungen, a staff writer for the  LaCrosse Tribune, was a 2015-2016 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow.  This article, part of her fellowship reporting project, is a slightly condensed version of a story published earlier this month. Read the full version here. Anne welcomes comments from readers.


Teen Detentions Longer In Some Places, Advocate Reports

The average length of juvenile suspects’ detentions has risen by 40 percent or more in some areas says Nate Balis of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, has sounded an alarm about a slowing of progress and an increase in the length of time youth are being incarcerated in some of the 300 sites of the  Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Speaking at the 25th anniversary celebration of the Foundation-sponsored initiative (JDAI), Balis noted that much of the rapid growth in reducing youth incarceration happened between 2002 and 2012, but that progress is slowing.

The average length of detention has increased in some sites by 40 percent or more. “These days, most detention facilities have empty beds, so the need to move kids out can feel less urgent. That’s understandable, but it’s not consistent with [the initiative’s] values.” The project “works much better when law enforcement is actively involved,” Balis said, adding that, “In many sites law enforcement leaders are not. That needs to change. … Most importantly, law enforcement is the key player at the stage of the system where racial and ethnic disparities are by far the greatest. If we are ever going to make wholesale improvements in racial equity, law enforcement just has to be actively at the table.”


New York Raises Juvenile Prosecution Age to 18

Vote by the state legislature leaves North Carolina as the only state still prosecuting 16- and 17-year olds as adults. The New York change doesn’t go into effect until October 2018.

New York State legislators voted Sunday night to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, giving supporters of the measure victory after years of frustration, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The vote leaves North Carolina as the only state that still prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. That may change this month. Juvenile justice and mental health experts, backed by research showing that trying minors as adults causes lasting damage to the teens and the community, have succeeded in raising the age to at least 17 in virtually every state. New York had clung to laws charging offenders as young as 16 as adults for even minor offenses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has spent years pushing for the change, which has been thwarted by concerns about costs and by some lawmakers who felt the measure would lead to an increase in crime.

The campaign was bolstered by advocacy groups led by Jennifer March of Citizens’ Committee for Children-New York, Naomi Post of the Children’s Defense Fund-New York, and Paige Pierce of Families Together. Marc Schindler of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), said New York was late adopting the age increase despite its reputation as being progressive on justice issues. Last month, JPI issued a study showing that states that have raised the age of criminal responsibility have seen reductions in crime and better outcomes for youth when they are charged as juveniles. The law, which will not take effect until October 2018, means that anyone under 18 charged with crimes will automatically be entered into the juvenile justice system. Prosecutors can still petition to send offenders to the adult system for the most serious crimes.


In Texas, Another “Raise The Age” Debate

New study contends that when it comes to committing crimes, 17-year-olds are much more similar to 16-year-olds than to adults.

When it comes to committing crimes, 17-year-olds are much more similar to 16-year-olds than to adults, says a new study released in Texas by advocates urging lawmakers to treat those under 18 as juveniles in the criminal justice system, reports the Dallas Morning News. Texas is one of seven states that treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. State Rep. Harold Dutton has filed a bill that would bring Texas in line with most other states and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. Advocates of raising the age argue that 17-year-olds’ brains are less well-developed than those of adults and that 17-year-olds are more likely to successfully complete rehabilitation and avoid more criminal behavior if they are sent to the juvenile system. Critics worry that adding 17-year-olds to the caseload would overburden the already struggling juvenile probation system.

The study said arrests of 17-year-olds have been dropping since 2008, falling by 17 percent from 2013 to 2015. The drop-off in arrests for 16-year-olds has been even steeper, falling by 26 percent during the same period. Juvenile justice advocates attribute the steeper drop in younger offenses to the state’s increased emphasis on treatment for minors in the juvenile justice system. The study noted that 16- and 17-year-olds commit similar types of crimes. Both were most often charged with theft, drug possession and assault. “Research shows that many of the programs most effective at reducing re-offending require parental involvement,” said Marc Levin of Right on Crime.