STANDING Around Scratching My Head …

Some things baffle me.  Truth be told, lots of things baffle me, but the befuddlement du jour relates to America’s criminal justice system, juvenile justice, to be exact.

When I worked with criminal youth as a student chaplain, our facility housed kids in what we called a “PRE-trial facility.”  That meant they arrived accused of a crime (or several crimes).  A judge would either release them to a parent or responsible guardian to await trial … or … they stayed with us – incarcerated but not yet adjudicated.  They stayed with us if the judge considered them a threat to society, a threat to themselves … and/or … they stayed with us if, for some reason, their home environment put them at risk–because of a known drug-addicted or abusive parent, improper supervision, rat infestation, no heat, food, phone or adequate shelter.

When they went before a judge, one of four things could happen: 

1)   The judge could find the detainee not guilty and release him or her (usually him);

2)   The judge could find the detainee guilty and release him or her with a warning or impose a sentence requiring community service often including a period of probation, and/or;

3)   The judge could find the detainee guilty and sentence him or her to more time in one of several post-trial juvenile detention centers, with varying degrees of security depending on the crime and whether or not the juvenile needed treatment for drug or alcohol addiction; or

4)   In the case of a serious felony charge, multiple felonies and/or repeat offense(s), the judge might order an interim hearing at which he or she could certify the detainee to stand trial as an adult.  When that happened – when a judge certified a juvenile defendant to stand trial as an adult — police officers arrived immediately to take the detainee to what we euphemistically referred to as, “Big-Boy Jail.” Our “little boys” left complete with handcuffs, shackles and heavy chains connecting their wrists to their ankles – often sadly appropriate but also humiliating.

Certification ranked as the “worst-case scenario.”  As chaplains, we cringed and prayed it wouldn’t come to that.  We didn’t deny the seriousness of their alleged crimes, but we cringed for the innocence they were about to lose.  As confining as those kids often found juvenile detention, we knew they would find “Big-Boy Jail” almost unimaginably worse, with 23-hour-per-day lock-up, overcrowded conditions, no school, no basketball courts, few privileges and really scary, criminal “neighbors” in the next cell or unit.  Many if not most of them had relatives already in jail or prison, so they often acted as if they knew the drill, but their understanding and sometimes cocky indifference evaporated when the gavel came down, the shackles stayed on and they stepped behind those big-boy bars themselves.

Here’s the baffling part …

A judge would determine that one of our alleged little criminals posed a threat to society.  To protect society, the judge would require our facility to hold that defendant, sometimes for more than a year, waiting for a hearing to see if he should stand trial as a juvenile or as an adult. 

Meanwhile, detectives would investigate.  Deputy juvenile officers would monitor the detainee and assess the home and family situation.  Lawyers would prepare.  Parents might visit, but often didn’t or couldn’t due to cost, distance, calendar conflicts with visiting hours or, sadly, indifference.  Eventually, the case would come before the judge againThis time, as I said, they called it a “Certification Hearing” to determine which court should hear the case – juvenile or adult. 

If the judge certified the defendant and sent the case to big-boy court, police took that defendant right across the street, where another judge would look at that freshly minted “adult” and promptly release him … without bail … to await trial … because, as far as the adult court was concerned, he had no criminal record. 

It didn’t make sense.  How could an allegedly dangerous criminal go from being a threat to society in the morning – a person we needed to keep under lock and key all day every day for more than a year — to no-longer-a-threat, out-and-about the same afternoon without having gone to trial

That left me STANDING around scratching my head, wishing I could suggest a better way.  I don’t have one to offer, but I do consider this a good argument for intervening in the lives of at-risk kids earlier and more often, before the shackles and the gavels and the visiting hours become necessary.  I have to believe, if they really knew what big-boy jail would be like … and, more importantly, if we helped them to see and pursue healthier alternatives sooner, they might not commit their crimes in the first place.

I know from first-hand experience that being the victim of a violent crime can knock you off your heels. It’s in our own best interests to catch that criminal intent before it becomes criminal.

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