The Kids’ Anniversary Edition (and what we have in common with Somalia and South Sudan)

1923 Juvenile Court Standards

2014 marks a milestone year for the protection of children.  115 years ago, Illinois passed the Juvenile  Court Act of 1899, the nation’s first such law recognizing that children enmeshed in the criminal justice system require specialized treatment.  Juvenile crime was a pressing problem of the late nineteenth century, especially in poor immigrant city neighborhoods, and the only legal remedy was to try children as adults and incarcerate them with older offenders. Reform-minded Chicagoans began campaigning for an alternative, and pressed for the enactment of this law, authorizing judges to find that children were delinquent, dependent, or neglected, and encouraging alternatives to jail, including probation at home or in a foster home, or placement in a training school or reformatory.

40 years ago, as described by Betsy Clark, President of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative, the United States Passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act.  The act, as amended, provides funding to states that provide certain protections for the care and treatment of youth in the justice system:  Deinstitutionalizing (not jailing) “status” offenders (things that would not lead to jail for adults, such as for runaways, truants or curfew violators); preventing contact between juvenile and adult offenders, including separate jails for adults and children; and efforts to address the over-representation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. With the act, came the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which sponsors research, program and training initiatives supporting innovative prevention and intervention strategies.

25 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Recognizing the unique vulnerabilities of children, the CRC bans the death penalty and life without parole for children under the age of 18, and emphasizes the right to survival, adequate nutrition, education, health care, and protection against abuse, neglect , exploitation, abduction or sale.  The United States (through President Clinton) signed the treaty in 1995, thereby broadly endorsing its principles, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it, making the United States one of just three countries that is not party to the treaty — the two others are Somalia and South Sudan.  Reportedly, Somalia has just re-committed itself to ratifying the convention, and South Sudan’s parliament has passed a bill to ratify it.  The treaty would not strip parents of their rights, contrary to some internet-generated rumors.  Rather, the Convention emphasizes the important role, authority and responsibility of parents and family.  Opponents frequently stoke fears that the Convention would usurp American sovereignty.  To address such concerns, the United States generally ratifies human-rights pacts with the condition that they will not overrule existing laws.  Nonetheless, the Convention has never been put to a vote in the U.S. Senate, on the assumption that it would be defeated.  .Only recently, the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional application of the death penalty for those who commit crimes as children and, as explained in a prior post, the issue of life in prison without the possibility of parole remains an issue in some states despite recent rulings declaring such a sentence unconstitutional in some circumstances. 

The Rudeness Of Saying Thanks, Humorless Indonesians And The Colorblind Sending Black Boys To Jail.

Speak globalAn American teacher in Beijing tells her students “You lovely girls. I love you” — and her Chinese students are terrified.  An Italian professor teaching in the United States is appalled to learn that his students are allowed to evaluate him, but an American elementary school teacher is frustrated by her South American students’ reluctance to answer questions in class.  An American says “thank you” to a colleague for treating the group to dinner, embarrassing and offending the Indian recipient of his praise who believed it questioned the sincerity of his motives.  A Dutch businessman jokingly tells someone who borrowed a chair for an empty office that “you’re on a nice stealing spree,” angering his Indonesian colleague who emphatically declared the next day that he is not a thief.  A South Korean businessman is put off by the aggressive, confrontational behavior of his American negotiating partner, while the American is incredulous that the South Korean seems so afraid to speak his mind.

What is going on?  These incongruities, as explained in Geert Hofstede’s excellent book:  “Culture and Organizations:  Software of the Mind,” stem from differences in our subjective cultures — our patterns of thinking, feeling and acting which we learn through our lifetimes.  Hofstede describes different cultural dimensions that result in different perceptions, communication styles and habits that, in turn, often result in conflict and miscommunication, impeding an organization’s ability to effectively carry out its mission:  Does a culture value more collaboration between leaders and their subordinates, or is there a greater respect for lines of authority?  Does it place a greater value on individualism or collectivism?  Does it value assertiveness or modesty?  Does it tolerate ambiguity or demand certainty?  Hofstede explains where each country tends to fall on the spectrum of these cultural benchmarks, and how a clash of different subjective cultures can lead to miscommunication, inadvertently offensive conduct and ineffective outcomes.

Improving Intercultural Communication

Companies increasingly recognize the value of having employees equipped with intercultural competencies so that in a global economy they can communicate effectively in cross-cultural situations, and relate appropriately in different cultural contexts. Many companies, in other words, recognize the need to stop glossing over cultural differences (and to stop turning diversity initiatives into faux group hugs to  “celebrate the rainbow”) but, rather, to bring in trained professionals to identify and explain cultural and communication differences, and teach how to navigate within them, strengthen intercultural awareness and communication, and become a stronger, more productive organization.  Many people have a natural curiosity about these differences.  Many travelers enjoy learning about the cultures of their destinations, and are rarely heard to announce defensively that they “don’t see Chinese or Peruvians or South Koreans — Just People.” 

Why then,  when it comes to race are many of us quick to say that “I don’t see race.  Just people.  I am colorblind”?  Why do we become so instinctively uncomfortable talking about different values, perceptions or cultural norms between races?  Out of fear of being labeled a racist?   Of course there are many exceptions to every generalization and most people are more complex and multi-dimensional than is suggested by any label.  Regardless, just as there are general cultural differences between people of different countries, there are interracial cultural difference that can pose their own challenges to interracial communication and cooperation.  In his outstanding book “The Inclusion Paradox,” Andres Tapias reports that white males frequently rank values such as self-sufficiency, hard work, fairness and honestly at the top of their cultural lists, citing those who lived the American dream by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps as epitomizing those values.  Many African Americans, in contrast, frequently list “giving back” and “justice”, and Latinos list “commitment to family,” at or near the top of their lists — differences that, as Tapias, explains, makes sense given the different experiences many in each group can relate to.  Many whites, for example, grow up with the cultural perception that most people have a level playing field and equal opportunities, while many African Americans have a cultural perception that intervention is sometimes necessary to achieve justice — competing perceptions that are both grounded in histories that were taught or experienced differently.  As well, a seemingly shared value can be interpreted very differently depending on race.  Tapias observes that Southern white males and Northern African American women both list “respect” as a value that is embraced, but the former group believes saying “yes sir” and  “no ma’am” is a sign of such respect, while the latter group believes it to be a sign of subservience.  It is not surprising that racially disparate organizations or communities sometimes show conflict, miscommunication and vastly different perceptions, not unlike the Dutch and Indonesian business partners.

justice not quite blind

And what does any of this have to do with at-risk youth?  Cultural differences permeate the criminal and juvenile justice system in the United States, a system which many African Americans believe is rigged against them — and with good reason.  In a recent study by Stanford psychologists, 735 white Americans were told of the identical background of a fictitious 14 year old boy with several prior convictions charged with a brutal (though nonlethal) crime — half the respondents were told the offender was black and the other half was told the offender was white.  The black offender group more strongly favored a sentence of life without parole and rated the juvenile offender more similar to adults in their culpability than respondents in the white offender group.  Other studies have revealed that people have a tendency to fear members of races other than their own.

How are outcomes affected?  In an earlier edition, we introduced the topic of racial disparities in the juvenile justice system through a satirical Onion broadcast news clip of a white girl whose crime was so horrific that she was sentenced to be tried as an adult black man.  Satire or not, African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.  If current trends continue one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, compared to one of every seventeen white males.  Studies have revealed racial disparities in police activity and sentencing.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that from 1975 to 2011 white students were slightly more likely to have abused an illegal substance than black students, yet black youth were arrested for drug crimes at rates more than double those of white youth.  Black drivers were three times as likely to be searched at a traffic stop as white drivers.  New York City’s recent stop and frisk policies effectively targeted black and hispanic americans far more than white New Yorkers, yet blacks and hispanics were no more likely to possess weapons or drugs than whites.  The harshest sentences — life without parole or the death penalty — is disproportionately sought and ordered when either the defendant is black or the victim was white.

It would be oversimplifying to blame all of this on racism or even unconscious bias.  There are higher crime rates in poverty stricken neighborhoods.  Public Defender’s offices that frequently represent minority defendants are overwhelmed with massive caseloads that do not permit sufficient investigation and preparation for each case.  Those with limited resources are less able effectively navigate an often confusing system.  But without an understanding of intercultural differences, unconscious biases will clearly exist between people with different sets of experiences and cultural norms.  Whatever the reasons (and there are many), the reality and perception of the police, prosecutors and courts differ significantly depending on race, economic well-being and cultural orientation. But if the Dutch, Indonesian, American and South Korean businessmen can be taught about cultural differences and intercultural competencies to support their bottom line, then we should be able to have just as honest a discussion about interracial cultural differences and their implications for the bottom line of our children, our schools and our community.  .








Sentenced To Be Tried As An Adult Black Man

Onion -- Motor City Murder

onion-news-network-IFC-1Does race still matter in the juvenile justice system?  To start the conversation I’ve attached a link to a satirical television news video from the Onion — the story of a white teenage girl whose crime was so horrific that she was given the ultimate sentence: to be tried as an adult black man (with familiar consequences.  Not to suggest humor in racially disparate treatment and outcomes, but satire can start difficult discussions or to force us to consider uncomfortable truths.  Soon, we’ll turn to the statistics, the reasons for discrepancies along racial lines, and look to examples and avenues to strengthen different facets of the juvenile justice system.  For now, however, HERE IS THE LINK TO THE SATIRICAL BROADCAST ON THE MOTOR CITY MURDERER. You can also see some initial data in racial sentencing disparities on this link to THE SENTENCING PROJECT.

“Your Son’s Been Arrested.” (Now What?)

kid in handcuffsFirst the good news:  The 1.6 million juvenile arrests in 2010 — about 4,800 for every 100,000 children under age 18 — represents a 21% decline from 2001, and an even more dramatic drop from 1996, when there were about 8,500 arrests for every 100,000 children.  Many police departments and prosecutors now support station adjustments or diversion programs to try to minimize the long-term impact of a child’s involvement in juvenile court.  And our friend Judge Ciavarella of the infamous CASH-FOR-KIDS SCANDAL will never again decide the fate of an arrested child.

Now the bad news (beyond the fact that your child was just arrested — sorry about that):  Your child’s involvement in juvenile court can have repercussions lasting far beyond the end of any sentence he or she may receive.  As  much as we may want our kids to cooperative with adults — and as much as kids may think that telling adults what they seem to want to hear will get them out of a jam more quickly (which is why kids are notorious for making false confession), it doesn’t always work out that way.  You and your child should base your decisions with full knowledge of your rights, and understanding the potential consequences of your decisions,  The COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES of a delinquency adjudication (a criminal conviction) can be severe and last long after the sentence has been completed:  preventing a return to school, harming future employment or professional licensing prospects, evictions, risking immigration status, losing driving privileges or perhaps even lifetime registration on a public offender list.

So what to do?  A REPORT prepared by the Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern University Law School and the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership — NOT to be a substitute for competent and affordable legal representation you should get (and the report provides links to legal and other resources, and lists questions you can ask of your attorney) — identifies the following rights and steps:

1,  Before An Arrest:  It’s been estimated that over 70% of children in the juvenile justice system have mental health issues.  Pro-actively reaching out for counseling, knowing where to call a crisis-intervention hotline or hospital in an emergency, and pursuing special services (see our prior post, SERVING OUR SPECIAL NEEDS KIDS: THE IEP) could help.  If a child’s behavior problems are caused by mental illness or there is medicine for sever behavior problems, alerting the police in advance, or telling the 911 dispatcher in an emergency, may increase your chances that the police will understand that your child’s actions could be caused by illness.

2.  Your Child’s Rights:  If arrested, your child has a right to remain silent, to a lawyer, to talk to a parent or guardian and to know why he or she is being held.  Your child should give his or her name, date of birth, address and how to reach a parent or guardian — and should tell the police that they do not want to talk until they have had an opportunity to talk to you.

3.  Your Rights:  Parents and guardians have a right to be notified of their child’s arrest or detention, a right to know why and where their child is being held, and a right to a lawyer for their child.  (The attorney, by the way, is your child’s lawyer, not yours).

4.  At The Police Station:  Tell the police you want to be allowed to see your child right away.  Don’t discuss what happened with your child (the discussion could be recorded) and don’t tell your child to tell the police what happened, even if he or she is innocent of any crime.  (Police are allowed to say things that are not true to try to get your child to talk).

5.  Police Options:  The police may issue a warning, issue an informal station adjustment (warning the child to improve his behavior), a formal station adjustment (a record is made and the police can set rules for the child to follow to keep the case out of juvenile court), or facilitate a police diversion (in which the child agrees to certain conditions such as counseling or drug treatment instead of going to juvenile court).  Alternatively, the police can issue a formal complaint and the case will proceed to juvenile court.

6.  In Juvenile Court:  Be on time.  Dress neatly (cover the tattoos and take off the jewelry).  Turn cell phones off.  Listen carefully.  Stay calm and respectful (rude or belligerent behavior will not help).  Juvenile court proceedings are supposed to be confidential, and open only to family members, court employees, crime victims and a few select others approved by the court.

7.  The Prosecutor:  The prosecuting attorney can determine that there is not enough evidence to proceed and dismiss the case, or decide to handle the case with a probation adjustment — setting conditions which, if followed, will result in a dismissal of charges.  Alternatively, the prosecutor can pursue charges through a juvenile petition.

8.  Pre-Trial Proceedings:  The judge will decide whether your child can go home, will be confined to home with electronic monitoring, or sent to a shelter, a residential treatment center or remain in juvenile detention until trial.  The judge may offer court supervision, potentially the last chance to have the charges dismissed.  The case could also be transferred to adult criminal court if the child is over a certain age and the charges are serious enough.

9.  The Trial, Sentencing and Beyond.  Your child has a right to a trial and, absent a plead agreement, the “adjudication hearing” will be held, after which the judge will determine guilt.  When a child is found guilty, the court holds a disposition hearing, where the judge will review a probation office’s social investigation report (another chance for you to tell the probation officer about any mental illness, substance abuse or other issues the court should consider).  The judge may place your child on probation, and if a condition of probation is violated, incarcerate your child.  If your child pleads or is found guilty, he or she also could be sent to a residential treatment center, a juvenile detention center or a youth prison operated by the state. Children sent to youth prison operated by the State of Illinois potentially can be held until they reach the age of 21.  Children found guilty have a right to appeal within 30 days of sentencing.

10.  Resources.  There are many statewide and local resources for mental health counseling, to provide legal assistance for those who cannot afford it, and — hopefully — to expunge your child’s arrest records (something we will cover in a future post).  Links to the report referenced on THIS WEBSITE will steer you to some of those resources.

Coming soon:  other challenges, resources, expunging arrest records and other opportunities.  Stay safe.

HOW TO GET RICH IMPRISONING KIDS: Zero Tolerance and The Pennsylvania Cash-For-Kids Scandal

kid in handcuffs

Meet Mark Ciavarella.  Growing up in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, he had an early brush with the law.  Caught stealing a car as a teenager, he escaped jail time as the police returned him to his parents rather than press charges.  His father punched him in the face for his transgression. “I didn’t need the system to take care of my problems,” he observed years later. “My parents took care of my problems.”   Having had the good fortune to avoid jail time he went on to attend college and law school, and soon became a judge — the toughest and  worst Juvenile Court Judge you’ve ever met.  He ran his court with an iron fist and a simple philosophy about the children in his charge:  “I wanted them to be scared out of their minds.”  Scare them he did — and much more.  Children who appeared in his court didn’t have a chance (certainly not the chance he was given when caught stealing).  Kids as young as ten — more often than not without a lawyer and after just a five-minute “hearing” —  were routinely shackled and hauled off to jail for minor transgressions:  possessing a stolen scooter bought by the child’s parents;  mouthing off at a school bus stop, an 11 year old who called the police after his mother locked him out of the house, a 14 year old who wrote a satirical Myspace profile, and many more.  Kids were detained longer if their parents could not pay their detention costs.  Zero tolerance on crack.  But the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center’s investigation revealed  another loathsome inspiration behind Ciavarella’s sentencing decisions other than his hostility and incompetence.  Judge Ciavella made money off of his sentencing decisions. Lots of money.

Judge Ciavarella, it turns out, used his administrative authority to facilitate the closing of the county Juvenile Detention Center, and then paved the way for the development of a private, for-profit facility that would hold detained children — a facility that he had a financial interest in.  Judge Ciavarella and his colleague Judge Conahan were paid $2.8 million for their help in establishing the agreement between the court and the facility.  Ciavarella monitored the financial success of that facility and concealed his profits.  A federal jury convicted Judge Ciavarella and, in 2011, Ciavarella and Conahan were sentenced to prison for 28 years and 17 1/2 years, respectively.  As part of the fallout from this scandal, the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice was established and issued a report containing dozens of recommendations that have been implemented ensuring meaningful representation of children, restricting the shackling of children absent a real danger, and requiring an on-the-record recitation of a child’s rights, among other reforms.  Convictions were overturned and the impacted children filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Ciavarello.  On January 10, 2014, a federal judge granted the children summary judgment, based partly on Ciavarella’s “enactment and expansion of zero tolerance policies dictating how probation officers were to handle violations of probation and other charging decisions.”  (We previously covered problems associated with zero tolerance school policies and impactful restorative justice models as an alternative approach ).  A documentary film on the Cash For Kids Scandal was just released.

One tragic post-script, out of many:  Edward Kenzaskoski was 17 years old, and a talented wrestler who hoped to earn a college scholarship, when he was arrested for the first time on a drug paraphernelia charge.  He landed in Judge Ciavarella’s courtroom and was sentenced to jail after which, friends and family member say, he began a downward spiral of depression and additional criminal problems.  He shot and killed himself at age 23, before Ciavarella was sentenced.  His father reportedly now claims to have framed his son in the hope that a trip to juvenile court might help him.

Other sources:







Breaking the link between mental disorders and juvenile incarceration

Juvenile-Justice-CourthouseMost children in contact with the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for mental disorders, but few receive the help that could vastly improve their prospects for attaining productive lives.  The MacArthur Foundation and the Substantive Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are collaborating on an effort to break the path from mental disorder to the juvenile justice system.  Up to five states will be selected competitively to participate in a new initiative based on the states’ commitment to improving policies and programs, emphasizing the diversion of children with mental and substantive use disorders from the juvenile justice system, screening and assessment practices and increased collaboration among stakeholders to facilitate access to the most effective treatment and services.  We’ll be watching for the results.


14 year old facing near-certain life in prison without parole despite Supreme Court rulings

The United States Supreme Court, in decisions limiting sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, recognized what psychologists have long recognized and parent instinctively learn:  the teenage brain is different.  Young offenders are less mature and experienced, less able to exercise good judgment and self-restraint, more susceptible to peer pressure and environmental influence, and limited in their ability to assist in their own defense, as compared to adult offenders.  They have demonstrated a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults guilty of the same offense.  Kids are categorically less culpable than adults.  Despite the Supreme Court rulings, some state courts are now imposing near-certain lifelong sentences to child offenders (in comparison even mass murder Charles Manson has been eligible for many parole hearings, all denied). Below is a story of Shimeek Gridine and the sentencing decisions now being challenged.