I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been a great judge in the juvenile division of our courts system. Like no other, King understood tension in the journey from injustice to justice.
No doubt, his soaring oratory and passionate belief in his dream would have inspired children and families as they sat in court waiting for their cases to be heard. But more than that, King would have brought to the juvenile bench his unique agenda for justice so essential today.
Outrage: Judge King would be outraged by the fact that young black males make up the majority of youths who appear in juvenile court and the vast majority of those direct-filed to adult court before they are 18. He would be outraged at the number of single moms who bring their young black sons to court, unable to identify or locate a responsible father. He would be outraged to see the pattern repeated, as young black boys protest, "I've gots me a shorty (a child)" before being led off to jail. As someone who frequently spoke of "the violence of poverty," he would be outraged to see the impact of a bad economy on the caseloads of juvenile court and the long waiting lists for kids to get family counseling or drug treatment.
Wisdom: Judge King would have jumped for joy at the good news that we now have the data and hard evidence of what works and what doesn't work to keep kids from going deeper into the juvenile justice system. Research has shown that an arrest can do more harm than good, except when public safety is involved, as it has a negative effect on a youth obtaining a job, scholarship or military service. We now know that locking kids up in detention prior to trial creates a more hardened, calloused juvenile delinquent. Also, committing kids to residential programs without engaging the family in intense counseling results in high recidivism and a waste of taxpayer funds. Judge King would seize the data, trumpet the results, and challenge the community at every opportunity to face the facts and stop the madness and economic waste of incarceration.
Collaboration: King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 in recognition of his civil rights work and powers of reconciliation. We all know the stubborn structure of chronic poverty, unemployment and education obstacles for young black youths requires us to engage the community and encourage involvement. Judge King would have celebrated the collaborations taking place in Pinellas County that will drastically improve the outcomes for at-risk youths. For example:
• In April 2009 the Juvenile Arrest Avoidance Project was launched. Youths who commit non-violent misdemeanors are assessed for service needs instead of arrested. Thanks to the collaboration among law enforcement, juvenile justice, the courts and state attorney, nearly 2,000 Pinellas County youths have successfully completed the program and can go forward in their lives without an arrest on their record.
• We actively pursue alternatives to detention, such as home detention, post-detention counseling services and, hopefully in the near future, sophisticated, GPS-linked electronic monitoring, to keep kids at home with services in place and to eventually reduce detention costs to the county. The number of kids in detention is half what it was seven years ago and, yes, juvenile crime is still dropping.
• We've lobbied for scarce juvenile justice dollars to fund programs like Redirections, which brings family counseling into the home with a goal of keeping offending kids in the community and out of commitment. Our experimental "girls court" has brought families together, and Job Corps has opened up in St. Petersburg with promises to train and employ youth.
• We recognize that kids who must be committed to a residential program, for felonies that endanger public safety, cannot succeed unless the family is engaged in counseling with the youths during commitment. We have piloted a successful family engagement program, Parenting with Love and Limits, and expect that commitment will be shorter, less expensive but more meaningful and re-entry to the community more successful with reduced recidivism.
• Our Juvenile Welfare Board has consistently supported our three court-based child psychologists who conduct behavioral evaluations on the kids in court and make recommendations to the judges. We are the only juvenile court in Florida that has that valuable resource.
I believe that King as Judge King would celebrate the successes achieved in Pinellas County but not without exhorting us to do so much more. Children are not just our future, they are our present, our "now." Every child needs a good family, every family needs a good community, and every community needs good schools. King as Judge King wouldn't relinquish the juvenile bench until this was achieved.
Irene Sullivan recently retired as circuit judge in the Unified Family Court. She is author of Raised by the Courts: One Judge's Insight into Juvenile Justice. The book's website is www.raisedbythecourts.org.