Publisher's note: This post, by Angela Hight, was originally published in the Justice & Public Safety section(s) of Civitas's online edition.
A day in the life of a juvenile court ... what does it really look like? Is it all about the crazy kids that television dramas portray? Or are they kids that are misunderstood and are innocent about the real effect of their curious behavior? I took a day to travel to a rural northern county here in North Carolina to observe and see what actually happens.
Flipping a park bench, fighting, dropping out of school, being arrested for not showing up to court, and an emancipation - this was day in the life of a juvenile court. More important than a list of the charges are the attitudes on display, some suggesting that the alleged crimes are not mere pranks, but serious actions that may merit more serious treatment than juvenile court can provide.
The judge presiding over the cases took the first five minutes of every case to ask a series of questions. They included: "Are you under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Are you able to make your own decisions? Did anyone force you to admit to what you were doing?" Such questions underscored how serious these cases are.
A 15-year-old girl in a white denim outfit made her best attempt to present herself to be mature as she walked up to answer the judge's questions. She admitted that she did what the officers accused her of. But what the officer described was shocking for a 15-year-old girl. The girl and her boyfriend found a house that the owners had left for the season to spend half the year in Florida. Since the youths thought the owners wouldn't be home for a while, they decided to take it upon themselves to live in the house for three weeks. While she lived in a house that wasn't hers, she didn't think of it as a big deal. The sentence she received was having a curfew set by the court for six months. While six months seems to a teenager like a long period of time, should she have other consequences as well?
A long-haired 14-year-old boy walked up with his underwear shorts showing because his pants were sagging. Standing before the judge, he continuously had to pull them up. He began answering the questions put forth to him by the judge, but he didn't speak loud enough, and the judge wanted a clear "Yes, Sir." The judge quickly reminded him that he was in court and needed to be heard.
He was an 8th grade dropout who went back to the school to fight a former classmate not once but twice. The sentence he was given - eight hours of community service - did not seem to faze him. Twice he laughed at the minimal punishment. It was hard to believe that juvenile court could deter him from future crimes.
The first court cases took a matter of minutes to hear, and decide, but then came an extended period of doing nothing because no lawyers were present to represent their clients. About 20 minutes passed before we were able to resume cases on the docket, as we waited for a lawyer to come over from Superior Court. A disheveled lawyer finally ambled into the courtroom. The lawyer was called to speak to the judge, but then the defendant was nowhere to be found. So what happens when a juvenile fails to show up for a court date? He was to be arrested. Unfortunately, this meant no closure for the victim assaulted in this case. The young boy sat in the court room for over two hours watching other cases hoping for this chapter to close. And where was the accused assailant lurking now?
While all of the cases mentioned above involved children that were age 15 or younger at the time of the crimes, should we really look at including trying 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile system, as pending legislation would do? If a 15-year-old assaults a classmate, squats in a seasonal home, or even doesn't show up for a court date - would an older child commit more serious crimes? Look at the examples provided by this day in the life of Juvenile Court in which these teenagers admitted to what they did and even told the judge that no one forced them accept the consequences of their actions. Do we really need to put 16- and 17-year-olds in a juvenile justice system that does so little to redress crimes by younger people?