On Humiliation and Juvenile “Justice”
A few weeks ago, I sat in court next to a fifteen year old client. He was being held in secure detention but I was hopeful that the judge would agree to his release with several conditions. I spoke with him before we appeared in front of the judge. He seemed to understand what was going on. We agreed that both cases needed to be set for trial. If he remained in secure detention, both cases would be tried within the next few weeks. In Florida, a child can only be held on a detention status for 21 days, unless the child waives the 21 day requirement.
We appeared in front of the judge and it quickly became clear that the judge was willing to release him, if he waived the 21 days. This meant my client would be on a detention status, and could be violated for any deviations from the strict requirements of that detention status until the completion of the case. I am not a fan of waiving the 21 days, but I can only imagine how daunting jail – even kid jail – is for a 15 year old boy. I can’t blame him for wanting to get out. The choice was his to make.
As often happens in juvenile court, everyone just kept talking. A phone call was made to make sure he can be released from custody. The judge spoke with his mom about his behavior. The prosecutors filed charges on an additional case. My office cannot represent him on that case so I was only able to vaguely explain to him what was happening as to that new case.
A lot goes on during a delinquency hearing. It’s a lot of noise.
I looked over and I saw him shaking. I put my hand on his shoulder and said “don’t worry – you’re going to get out. The judge is going to let you out.” He stared down at his feet. I really didn’t know what to do or say. I wanted to just stand up and yell TIME OUT! WE NEED A BREAK. Maybe I should have; public-defender-guilt is real life. I just sat next to him and kept saying “It’s going to be okay. The judge is going to let you out.” He never looked up. He couldn’t take it anymore; tears started streaming down his face. “It’s going to be okay.” No one seemed to notice but me.
I take for granted how overwhelming it all must be. Sitting there, being lectured, having your parents complain about you (some parents declare in open court that they no longer want their children), listening to a prosecutor read off your record, being interrogated about your grades, not knowing what will happen next, thinking the worst, the general angst of being a teenager. The whole spectacle is designed for humiliation.
I recently watched I Am Not Your Negro, which I recommend everyone see. In the movie, James Baldwin (narrated by Samuel Jackson) shares several images of Dorothy Counts-Scoggins going to school. The feelings of disgust by white students are palpable. The 15-year black girl entering this already intimidating space run by white men and women (but, mainly men) was met with ridicule. A mob of white people followed her into the school, making gestures behind her back. As she sat in class, attempting to not only learn but also bear the burden of representing generations of black men and women who were not permitted to sit next to white people in schools, young white boys made faces behind her back.
They didn’t know anything about Dorothy. They just wanted her to know she wasn’t welcome in their club, their world. The spectacle in these photographs was also clearly designed by people, who knew nothing about Dorothy, to humiliate her, to make sure she knew that she didn't belong.
When I see these pictures, I think of my juvenile clients. I imagine they feel something like Dorothy did walking into school that day. They are walking into a place where are they are judged as criminal or at the very least, an object of the Government and judiciary’s need to “fix troubled kids.” Though a snapshot of any given courtroom won’t capture prosecutors making faces at the accused like in the photos above, the harsh judgment exists nonetheless. I can’t even say it’s more subtle; it’s just more difficult to capture in a still image.
Like the people jeering and gawking at Dorothy, very rarely do the parties doing this fixing know anything about these children. It is our job to show the courts how often the accused are the victims and survivors of crime – of sexual abuse, physical abuse, poverty, homelessness – and not allow the judicial process to further traumatize our clients. I imagine our juvenile courts are whittling away at any sense of self-worth poor children and children of color (the vast majority of children arrested and prosecuted, at least in South Florida – though I’m confident saying that it is a national problem) have. I imagine it is teaching children of color that their childhood mistakes are criminal, that their adolescent behavior is dangerous, and that they are not worthy of respect or dignity.
I attended a forum for community leaders, children in the juvenile “justice” system, and police officers as a representative of the Public Defender’s Office. Throughout the discussion, the children were constantly being told to “speak up!”
In what universe can we expect teenagers to “speak up!” and be honest when they are surrounded by individuals from the very institutions that oppress them and their communities. I almost lost my mind when the representative from the State Attorney’s Office demanded that one of the children raise his voice, though I managed to avoid an objection-how-dare-you.
But really – how dare you. How dare you subject these children to the indignity of arrest, humiliation of court proceedings, and militant oversight of a seemingly never ending probation or program and then expect them to have the confidence to speak with you like their ideas matter. How dare you be a part of the club that targets children of color, keeps them in the system for primarily nonviolent offenses, and tries to “fix” them without ever knowing anything about them, their families or their communities, and then have the audacity to demand they speak to you with pride in themselves.
The California Board of State and Community Corrections asked previously incarcerated children and their families to suggest changes for juvenile detention centers. One of the children wrote, "Anytime I needed anything I had to put my request through a chain of command system which was intended to help me learn delayed gratification. This system unintentionally served to communicate my physical needs were not worthy of being met. This experience served to damage my capacity for self worth. I was denied medication for a skin condition for weeks[.] I was often denied Tylenol for menstrual cramps until an hour after I requested it for severe pain."
Whether intentional or unintentional, juvenile courts and their ancillaries diminish the self-worth of already vulnerable children daily. The system brutally grinds down children who are entitled to better treatment by their Government and, more often than not, leaves them victims of a broken system.
Unlike my adversaries or often even the judge, I don’t think my kids need to be fixed or saved. They need someone to stand up for them and with them. Someone who enables a sense a pride and self-worth. Sometimes, it is a parent. And sometimes, it is a public defender.