Whose Hands Are Tied?

I do not think prison for juveniles, as institutions, encourage the same amount of change for as community based services. Prisons are not deterrents. They do not reform prisoners. They serve as barely humane punishment for individuals who have violated the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens. Prison, hereafter referred to as The Department, for juveniles, should be the last resort for their safety and the safety of the community. The services provided by The Department, while not as robust as community based services, are better than nothing.

I do not not make this decision lightly. At least, not normally. After I finished my most recent eval, I recommended The Department. It was easier than I expected. In fact, it scared me with the ease in which I came to this decision. I am rather worried about burn out. When Burnout affects a PO, its the kids and communities who suffer. I went over my notes, talked with my coworkers and spent a lot of time examining my rationale. In the end, I was comfortable with my decision. This kid was too dangerous for the community.

Today, while the judge agreed, he felt as if his hands were tied. In essence, she indicated* that she was not comfortable sending this client to The Department given that The State agreed to a plea bargain of 18 months probation.

My coworker blamed the judge. The Judge blamed Probation and the State. The state blamed the judge. I felt bad for the victim.** The blame game ignores the fact that the system has failed the victim, the community and the offender.

Probation has been told not to violate probation for failure to attend school. There are other options at the disposal of probation to correct this behavior. This wasn’t done. The state, who knew of these issues, did not take them into account when they made the deal. The judge, who was furious with the State for making the Deal, ignored the opinions of two probation officers because they differed so greatly from the deal AND because the minor has not had additional findings. He just had additional police contacts. In fact, he had more police contacts than the rest of my case load cases combined (and doubled).

My colleague should have documented the sanctions she put in place. The state should have grilled me about my recommendations. Finally, the judge should have recognized that her hands were not tied by the agreement. When the agreement was made, they had no idea as to how patterned this kid’s aggression is. They made the JSO evaluation as a formality. Given that we work with a wide range of kids, I do not think the state expected this particular client to be regarded as such a danger to society.

To be clear, this kid is a danger to society. It is only a matter of time before he offends again. What happened today was not a fault of the system. The failure today stems from the players within the system. The fault lies with the individuals who saw their job as a distinct from the rest of the system.

The kid was released with a number of sanctions and supervisions that he will be caught when he violates his probation order. According to the judge, this will be enough to send him to the Department. We, as probation, should not set up a client to fail to keep the community safe. We should get it right the first time.

*I am aware I’m changing the gender of my pronouns. It is for an added level of confidentiality.

**Honestly, all the players–except the client (But including the Public Defender)—felt for the victim. The state made the plea offer to protect the victim from the additional trauma of testifying. Before being sexually assaulted, she was suffering from some mental health issues. After the offense, she is doing worse. She hasn’t received any additional services. In short, she’s being hung out to dry. That isn’t fair for her. Then again, it is never fair for the victim.

Why Juvenile Justice is Necessary

via Lithwick: Teens, Nude Photos and the Law | Newsweek Dahlia Lithwick on Legal Issues | Newsweek.com.

Judging from the sexting prosecutions in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana this year, it’s clear that the criminal-justice system is too blunt an instrument to resolve a problem that reflects more about the volatile combination of teens and technology than about some national cybercrime spree. Parents need to remind their teens that a dumb moment can last a lifetime in cyberspace. But judges and prosecutors need to understand that a lifetime of cyberhumiliation shouldn’t be grounds for a lifelong real criminal record.

In the juvenile justice field, I’m the guy who evaluatesĀ  sexual aggression in teens.* I’ve evaluated clients, all male, who’ve downloaded a lot of child pornography and “sexted” (themselves and their girlfriends). I’ve also had a few clients who’ve used MySpace to put up dehumanizing pictures of their exes. While there is a huge difference in all of these circumstances, the law treats all of these instances as the same kind of abuse.

Legislators want to treat all “sex offenses” as equal in the eyes of the law. When it comes to juveniles, nuance is needed. Not all behaviors described as “experimental” are really experimental. Some juveniles exploit and abuse other children. We can, and should, prevent some of these behaviors with comprehensive sexual education. This education would not just focus on the reproductive system, but it should also address boundaries within relationships, appropriate behaviors and provide juveniles with a safe way to answer their questions about their bodies.

Because we fail to do this, and we have made sex a taboo, juveniles turn to less savory methods of learning about sex and sexuality. I was in fifth grade when I learned about the human reproductive system. My education came in two classrooms: Mrs. Murphy’s class room every other friday instead of Reading and every morning by the oak tree at St. Cletus. In 1988, we didn’t have camera equipped cell phones, but we did have dirty playing cards, playboys and father’s who had an extensive repertoire of dirty jokes (I miss you dad). In my 100+ evaluations, I’d say less than 30% have had some form of formal sexual education by the fifth grade. This includes the suburban cases that I have had. About 60% have had talks from their parents about, “safer sex, how to treat girls and wear a condom.” Guess where they get the rest of their education? Google, TMZ, Fox, HBO and the playground. Twenty two years later, our culture has increasingly conflicting ideas about sex, but they still have valid questions about what is, and is not, appropriate sexual behavior.

We are failing kids by having draconian laws for juveniles–laws requiring juvenile registration–but not providing the kids with the direction they need to navigate our confusing world. Want to cut down on sexting? Teach kids bounderies.

Parents need to teach their children about sex, sexuality and appropriate sexual behaviors. Schools need to do this as well. Taking away cellphones will not work, nor will treating juveniles as adults. Education is the best way to address this issue.

*For the record, when we get the kinds of cases that Dahlia references, we use group counseling methods to teach proper boundaries, sex education and appropriate sexual behaviors. Most of these cases are diverted from the court system; however, when we evaluate children who are using videos (or child pornography) as a part of their sexually aggressive behavior, or we are concerned about their sexual fantasies, we arrange (or provide) more intensive treatment for this juveniles.