As a trial judge, having served three years on the juvenile court, I will not miss the lack of tools and answers for our homeless, poverty-stricken and abused youth.
As a trial judge in King County Superior Court and a former state and federal prosecutor, I have had to manage complex, difficult cases. However, the past three years I spent in juvenile court have been the most emotionally-charged, inspiring and terrifying of my 25-year legal career. During my time there, one truth became clear — political slogans are terrible answers for juvenile court justice and simple answers do not exist.
It is a place that deserves more expertise, more support, more resources and more thoughtful consideration. The system requires more alternatives, more tools and more options. It relies on individualized decision-making that considers the behavior (which is only sometimes reflected in the name of the crime), impact on victim, the brain science, and the specific traits and needs of each youth. It must also account for this unique truth — no juvenile sentence can legally incarcerate a youth for more than a handful of years.
It is often an impossible calculation, equally rooted in science, facts, law and prediction. Judges cannot always get it right. Judges consistently feel the tension between the comfort of stronger sentences and the optimism of alternatives to longer sentences. Neither is always the right answer.
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We read about youth who commit terrible crimes after receiving a sentence that “could have been longer.” These are nightmare scenarios. Locking up a kid — and, as a King County juvenile prosecutor, I did — a kid who would have succeeded in giving back to his community in a meaningful way, is a different, quieter and more difficult-to-identify nightmare. We never hear the successes — stories of those kids who received alternatives to incarceration and then succeeded. Every single kid sentenced in juvenile court will eventually be released to his or her community. Every. Single. One.
Hence, the tension. Do you go out on a limb for a kid who is capable of violence but now surrounded by a community to help him? Are you satisfied the community is safe? How safe is safe enough when our children are cursed with easy access to weapons? Is my decision based on what I hope will happen, or is it based in reality and security? Are my biases playing into that decision? Have I considered the pure punishment due when someone injures another?
I will not miss certain things in my new assignment, adult criminal court. I will not miss reading about a Saturday night shooting and wondering whether it was one of my kids who was killed — or who did the killing. I will not miss the dearth of answers for drug-and-alcohol-addicted youth. I will not miss parents’ hopelessness when they have lost their child to addiction. I will not miss the disappointment with a child who insightfully tells you on Friday about their plan for success, and then pitifully avoids eye contact on Monday when in custody on a new offense. I will not miss the impulsivity of youth. I will not miss the lack of tools and answers for our homeless, poverty-stricken and abused youth.
I will miss the dedicated people who work and sacrifice each day at juvenile court. Most of all, I will miss talking to teens every day. They are funny, sensitive, smart and stubborn. They are self-involved, impulsive and thoughtless. They challenge your authority and shock your conscience. They cover their fear with cartoonish bravado. They are flawed, dangerous and magnificent. They face obstacles the majority of us never had to face. It is a mess. But it is a mess about which I could not wait to learn and try to help clean up each day.
The county’s new Children and Family Justice Center represents a new chapter in juvenile justice. In December, the project cleared its last legal hurdle when the Washington State Supreme Court sided with King County against the group, EPIC (End the Prison Industrial Complex), and allowed the project to move forward. It will open in October.
But even then, the answers will still be complex. While the policy folks make their grand pronouncements, those who work with these kids must decide each day how to respond to each youth, each victim, each community, each crime. No answer fits neatly into any strategic plan or slogan. Rather, they are imperfect, well-intentioned, stomach-churning decisions designed to help that particular community, that particular victim and that particular youth. I will miss that particular challenge each day.