Juvenile Justice System Faces Conflicts Over Primary Goals

New York Law Journal, December 6, 2001

by John Caher

The juvenile justice system is in dire need of some preventative medicine.

That was the consensus of both participants and audience members Wednesday, when the Fund for Modern Courts held a forum on a system torn between the twin goals of rehabilitation and punishment, and often failing on both counts.

Schenectady County Judge Michael C. Eidens, one of the panelists, said that by the time a youth appears in his felony court, it is already too late in many instances.

“Once a case reaches me at the felony level in county court… it is often too late, too late for the individual and too late for the people victimized by that individual,” Judge Eidens said. “The victims of crime are not concerned at all with how old the offender was. It is important to keep that concept in mind. If you or somebody you care about is victimized by rape, murder, burglary, [or] robbery, the harm to the person is not related to how old the offender is.” Judge Eidens said that when a matter comes to his court, there is relatively little discretion. Under state law, the criminal court has jurisdiction over 13-year-olds charged with murder and youths aged 14 and 15 who are accused of murder or another violent crime. Since offenders 16 and over are considered adults, their cases are also adjudicated in criminal court.

“The criminal justice system… isn’t suitable or practical for dealing with today’s problems,” Judge Eidens said. “The problems that existed 100 years ago for our young people were vastly dissimilar from the problems our young people face today. As a county court judge, I have in a sense a hammer and a chisel, and that is all I have as tools. Obviously, my range of choices is limited.”

Younger Children
Younger children are seen by Family Court judges, and what they see is eye-opening.

“I’ve seen little kids come to court when they are charged with being juvenile delinquents or Persons in Need of Supervision PINS and they are alone. No parent, no adult has come with them,” said Rensselaer County Family Court Judge Linda Griffin. “Sometimes there is an older brother or sister of 16 or 17, and I am grateful that there is a slightly older sibling who takes an interest.”

Judge Griffin, one of the panelists, said the lack of parental supervision is a perpetual explanation for what she sees in her court. She suggested that schools are too reluctant to file a PINS petitions against habitual truants, many of whom on on their way to trouble.

“I think it is absolutely absurd that we send children to school at 7 or 7:30 in the morning and we let them loose on the streets to manage themselves at 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Judge Griffin said. “Look at the statistics on youth crime and you will see that it peaks during those hours when every child… knows what house it is where nobody is home, the liquor cabinet is unlocked and whose mother has a few marijuana cigarettes tucked away in her top lingerie drawer.”

Judge Griffin said placing a child in a youth facility, at a public cost of about $ 90,000 each year, is sometimes the only alternative if neither the parents nor the juvenile justice system can devise a better remedy. But she said it is rarely a good alternative.

Alternatives
Root causes notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that young people get in trouble with the law, and the law is forever seeking ways to deal with them. A number of alternative programs have arisen over the years, and Judge Eidens suggested that the functional equivalent of a drug court for young offenders might be successful.

There is already an alternative in many communities in the form of youth courts, where peers serve as jury, judge, prosecutor and defender and handle matters where a first-time, non-violent offender is willing to have his or her matter disposed of outside the normal process.

Kristen Hamilton, director of Saratoga Area Youth Courts, said her program works with young people between the ages of 8 and 19 who were referred by the family or town court. Ms. Hamilton, one of the panelists, said that 93 percent of the participants this year successfully completed the process and served sentences that usually involve community service, and sometimes include the requirement of a letter of apology. She said all of the “convicts” are then required to serve as a future juror.

The forum at the Albany Marriott was moderated by Assistant Attorney General Rachel L. Kretser, chief of the legal education bureau, and organized by Helga A. Schroeter, Capital District coordinator for Modern Courts.

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