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Conference addresses flaws in juvenile justice system

by Leslie Cowan
Law Student Writer/ 3L

JuvenileOn Feb. 19 and 20, the Levin College of Law hosted a Juvenile Justice Law conference titled, "Juvenile Justice: Passages, Prevention and Intervention," as a means of providing a forum for the sharing of ideas and information regarding how the juvenile justice law system should be changed to provide for better outcomes for juveniles.

During the two days of the conference, distinguished scholars from all over the United States presented various theories and supporting research as to why the present juvenile justice system is inadequate and how it should be reformed.

The conference was sponsored by the Center on Children & Families and the Center for Race and Race Relations, and was co-sponsored by The Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown Law School, with support from the University of Florida Office of Research. The conference was helpfully staffed by student volunteers from the Levin College of Law.

During his introductory comments, Levin College of Law’s Dean Robert Jerry offered personal insight into the juvenile justice system, as the father of three teenage children.

Jerry expressed hope that the Juvenile Justice Law Conference could lead to open discussion of issues affecting the juvenile justice system and the implementation of an improved system.

“When we’re talking about children in any context, we’re talking about our future,” Jerry stated.

Nancy Dowd, Levin College of Law professor, David H. Levin Chair in Family Law, and Director of the Center on Children & Families, echoed Dean Jerry’s sentiments and expressed hope that the conference could help the law to “move forward to change the system that we all know has deep flaws.”

On Feb. 19, topics included foster care, mental health, disproportionate minority contact, gender issues, and changing attitudes and approaches to juvenile justice law.

Claudia Wright, juvenile justice monitor with the Office of the Attorney General in Maryland, began her presentation with an anecdote that captures her view of the present juvenile justice law system. In her story, there is a river that runs through a village that has become inundated with drowning babies. Everyone in the village frantically tries rescue the babies, but still more babies are showing up in the water, desperately in need of rescue.

“So one person turned away from the river and began to walk up the river. Everyone said he had to come back and help [the babies] out of the river. He turned around and said ‘I’m going to go up here and find out who is throwing them in.'"

Wright compared her story to young practitioners – in both education and law – who know the system is failing and want to improve it, but do not go directly to the source of the problem when trying to devise solutions.

Wright’s presentation, titled “Making Systems Integration Work” was the first of the conference. In addition to emphasizing the need to identify the source of failures in the juvenile justice law system, Wright also urged the need for teachers, counselors, and lawyers to “practice without boundaries.” She hailed Gator Team Child as exemplary of this approach, because it assigns an interdisciplinary team of professionals to handle all of the cases surrounding a child, so that case management staff are keenly aware of all aspects of the child’s situation and are able to work more flexibly with that child and his or her family to secure a positive outcome.

“Success is not the responsibility of the child, but rather becomes the responsibility of the adults surrounding that child. They have to change and be flexible and provide that child with what [he or she] need[s]. So when the child fails, it’s the team’s failure and not just the child’s,” Wright said.

Other popular topics of discussion throughout the first day of the conference included factors which may increase a child’s chance of entering the juvenile justice law system. Among these factors are foster care, race, gender, mental illness, and poverty.

Leslie Harris, Dorothy Kliks Fones professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, correlated foster care with delinquency and suggested trying to prevent children from entering foster care as a means to curb juvenile delinquency. Harris rejected the familiar argument that there are simply not enough resources to provide support for children other than foster care and suggested wider use of “family group decision meetings” that consist of a social worker convening the family group, and accepting solutions devised by the family, so long as the solutions meet a basic set of criteria.

Harris’ presentation was followed by Alonzo DeCarlo, associate professor with the Department of Psychology at Chicago State University. DeCarlo brought a unique, clinical perspective to the discussion of juvenile justice law and discussed the rise in prescription drugs to treat behavioral disruptions and the discrepancies between psychiatric treatment and care offered to African-American juveniles as compared to treatment offered to other juveniles. According to DeCarlo, African-Americans are three times more likely to receive antipsychotic medications, but 76 percent less likely to receive new generation drugs that may offer more favorable therapeutic outcomes.

Professor Kenneth Nunn had strong words for the impact of the juvenile justice law system on minority children, furthered by socioeconomic disadvantages and comparatively limited access to quality education.

“What we’re talking about is the existence of oppression in our society today...and greater involvement of kids in those communities with the criminal justice system,” Nunn said.

Nunn called on lawyers to recognize their responsibility to “get our communities to address the fundamental problem here, which is that we are continuing to oppress communities.”

On Feb 20, the second day of the conference, presenters addressed developmental perspectives and programs for change. The conference was concluded with an enlightening and powerful presentation by Geoffrey Canada, founder, president, and CEO of The Harlem Children’s Zone, as well as acclaimed author of Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America and Reaching Up for Manhood. Canada is also the subject of Paul Tough’s book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.

Canada himself grew up in the South Bronx, and went on to successfully complete a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Canada discussed his revolutionary program, The Harlem Children’s Zone, which is composed of a network of sub-programs, and seeks to provide “a net so tight a child cannot slip out” and fall into the juvenile justice system. He also discussed his philosophies on education and juvenile delinquency that have made his program so successful.

“If our country continues to treat the children of America the way it has, we are going to destroy our nation’s prosperity…essentially, we’re going to destroy America,” Canada warned.

He described what he sees as “a certain population that are basically not being prepared for anything except jails and prisons.”

Canada also discussed the disproportionate impact of low graduation rates and incarceration on African-Americans, citing statistics that show that 64 percent of Americans 16-24 who do not graduate from high school are unemployed; 69 percent of this group are African-American. Additionally, 25 percent of African-Americans who drop out of high school will face incarceration, he said.

“There is a direct connection with our ability to educate our children and this end result,” Canada stated.

According to Canada, these statistics constitute a “national crisis.” He dubbed it “the education equivalent of [hurricane] Katrina— there are a bunch of people standing on rooftops waiting on someone to save them, but no one is on the way.”

This year, Canada’s program will work with 8,000 children. Canada said that 500 graduates of Canada’s program are now in college and will work for the program during their summers away from school — a testament to the success of his work.

Canada described his program as “changing the norm” for Harlem and advocated that the same kind of radical thinking that is transforming the futures of Harlem’s children should be applied to schools which are currently failing. He suggested that failing schools should be closed and replaced with programs and teachers that can promote student success.

“We have an industry that’s designed around explaining why poor children failed. Poor children failed because adults let them fail,” Canada said.