When I tell people that I have been a juvenile court judge for close to a year now, the reaction is consistent and predictable — “Oh my gosh, that must be so depressing.”
It is not. It is incredibly difficult. It is sometimes frustrating. But it is also the most uplifting, soul-enriching and interesting work I have ever done. In King County, we have worked very hard to reverse the more draconian policies that existed in King County Juvenile Court in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. This newly energized focus on rehabilitation and alternatives to detention is fueled by advances in technology, science and understanding of juvenile behavior.
For a judge, however, it converts each disposition decision, each detention decision, and each modification decision into a complicated, difficult puzzle. Judges have to consider the impact on the victim as well as the juvenile’s living situation, stability, dangerousness, mental health, drug/alcohol use, and other factors in an incredibly short period of time. Given what we now know about implicit and unconscious bias, the Court also must constantly be aware of its own context in making those decisions. It is difficult and thought-provoking work that often leaves me exhausted at the end of the day.
On the positive side, the teenagers I see every day in the courtroom are a wonder. I constantly see children who have grown up in unstable, drug-infested homes who arrive in my courtroom clearly bright, insightful and charming. Many struggle with addiction and mental illness. Many more have difficulty answering simple questions about their future because they rarely think beyond the minute or day they are currently experiencing.
Separating basic teenage behavior (which is ridiculous even with the most pro-social, well-behaved 13- to 17-year-old child) from truly dangerous, impulsive and criminal behavior is the impossible task I face every day. If you add to those expectations a constant flow of crimes that occur because of the easy access these kids have to guns, every day is a roller coaster of stomach-churning decisions where very few good answers exist.
Fortunately, I am never alone. The juvenile court staff, detention staff, and my own staff all work incredibly hard to create a fair, thoughtful, rehabilitative environment for those in our courtroom. We constantly work as a court to improve our approach to these kids, and make daily improvements with what we do.
While the public’s perception of state-employed social workers is overwhelmingly negative, the juvenile probation counselors I see every day are some of the most creative, hard-working and caring people with whom I have worked in my 25 years in the criminal justice system. They live and die with the successes and failures of the kids on their caseloads.
Every lawyer who wishes to work in the criminal justice system should be required to spend a week watching hearings in juvenile court, listening to the lives these children have lived. Every lawyer should see the difficulties inherent in finding the right treatment and rehabilitation for kids who have often endured unspeakable trauma during their lives, and some of whom have now imposed that trauma on their victims.
Every lawyer should hear these teens uncomfortably answer my questions about their lives, their hopes, their dreams and their thoughts. As you can imagine, those conversations veer from sublimely moving to ridiculous to deeply sad to head-shakingly hilarious.
I have experienced great successes with my juvenile court offenders. I have also had great failures. But, I would not trade the experience of trying to make the right decision every day for the community, for the victims, and for these children for anything.
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