The Untraditional Role of Juvenile Judges

How Georgia Judges Improve Outcomes for Youth by Judge Steven C. Teske
It can be said that the role of a judge is determined by the jurisdiction of the court. Since its creation in 1899, juvenile judges have played a unique and untraditional role within the judiciary. Adolescents often present a myriad of intricate issues that require specialized treatment on one hand and a great amount of patience on the other. The latter is not always extended by courts with adult jurisdiction and for good reason—adults and kids are wired differently. Kids are still under neurological construction, whereas adults have been neurologically constructed. [i]  The former possesses far greater capacity for rehabilitation than the latter. Hence, the emphasis on rehabilitation is greater in juvenile courts.

altWorking with kids who are neurologically wired to do stupid things, including the commission of delinquent acts, compels juvenile judges to assume an untraditional collaborative role off the bench while maintaining the traditional due process role on the bench. This is more evident as schools have become a significant feeder of referrals to the juvenile court with the advent of zero tolerance policies in the early nineties. Zero tolerance policies for example resulted in the near doubling of students suspended annually from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2001.[ii]
The introduction of campus police for the protection of students from weapons and serious assaults has become in many schools a disciplinary arm of the principal, resulting in a significant increase in referrals to the juvenile courts. Most of these referrals are misdemeanor offenses involving fights, disorderly conduct, disrupting public school, and other similar offenses typically handled using the code of conduct. In Clayton County, for example, after police were placed on middle and high school campuses in the mid-1990s, the number of referrals to the juvenile court increased approximately 1,248% by 2004.[iii] Again, most of the referrals were misdemeanor offenses. In contrast, the felony offenses did not increase.
These policies, when applied broadly, are harmful to youth.  For example, astudent arrested in school is twice as likely not to graduate and four times as likely if he or she appears in court.[iv] Arguably, graduation rates impact crime rates in the community—higher the graduation rate, lower the crime rate.
The second greatest protective buffer against delinquency is school connectedness. [v] Studies have found that students’ belief that adults and peers in school care about them is related to lower levels of substance abuse, violence, suicide attempts, pregnancy, and emotional distress.[vi] Studies also reveal that this belief is linked to school attendance, graduation rates, and improved academics.[vii]
Studies have found that disciplining harshly with out-of school suspension (OSS) and criminal sanctions regardless of the risk level of the student exacerbates the problem by making students worse.[viii] A longitudinal study on the disciplining of elementary and middle school students found that OSS is a predictor of future suspensions.[ix] This study also found that OSS contributes to poor academic performance and failure to graduate. The research shows that students handled by punishment alone are less likely to succeed.
When it comes to the protection of our children and youth, we are a nation in paradox. We promulgate laws such as No Child Left Behind and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to promote the education of children, but we fail to safeguard them from incarceration on relatively minor school offenses that in turn increase the risk of delinquency and dropping out of school. Juvenile judges have witnessed this paradoxical treatment for years and have questioned: why so much emphasis on punishment, and why not more emphasis on assessment and treatment? When school policies result in the push-out of students from a significant protective environment, juvenile judges begin to see them pushed into a delinquency system. Some require it—many others could have been prevented.
The juvenile court is the one place where all agencies serving children and youth intersect. With the juvenile court situated at the crossroads of juvenile justice, the juvenile judge is placed in a unique role as the traffic cop.[x] Juvenile judges are “incomparable agents for change within the juvenile justice system, and with the respect and authority accorded the bench, are in a unique position to bring together system stakeholders.”[xi] Former National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges president Judge Leonard P. Edwards said it best, “This may be the most untraditional role for the juvenile court judge, but it may be the most important.”[xii]
Besides our exclusive jurisdiction over children as set forth in O.C.G.A. § 15-11-28, this “untraditional role” is what makes juvenile judges unique. The welfare of our children is so paramount that it cannot be enough to limit juvenile judges to the bench, hoping that the orders we issue are sufficient to address their needs and effectuated with the purpose of success. Not only are we obliged to know the effectiveness of the programs and treatment we order and the competence of the system and its stakeholders, but public policy demands it. O.C.G.A. §15-11-10 authorizes juvenile judges to work with stakeholders to develop community-based risk reduction programs “for the purpose of utilizing available community resources in assessment and intervention in cases of delinquency, deprivation, and unruliness.” It further authorizes juvenile judges to develop early intervention programs to prevent delinquency and allows for the court to enter into written protocols with other stakeholders including schools.
Using their “untraditional” role, juvenile judges in Georgia have used the tools of our trade and influence off the bench to reduce the harmful effects of zero tolerance policies.  Sometime ago, I was contacted by an out-of-county citizen seeking to reconcile   data showing a sizeable number of school arrests and her judge stating that they don’t see many school cases in the courtroom. Dumbfounded she asked, “How can this be?”
I explained that juvenile judges exercise their authority in low risk cases to divert or informally adjust cases and that these tools are often employed in most of the school-related cases. Juvenile judges are well versed in adolescent brain development and understand that the commission of a delinquent act does not necessarily make the child a delinquent. While they may not control the executive branch’s decision to arrest students on minor school offenses, they do control how the case will be handled when it reaches the courthouse. This is important knowing that students are four times more likely not to graduate if they appear in court.[xiii] Our Georgia judges are cognizant of this research and establish internal protocols to prevent low risk cases going deeper into a system that can cause more harm than good.
For example, studies consistentlyshow that intensive interventions applied to low-risk youth increase the risk of re-offending.[xiv] Several years ago Douglas County Juvenile Court developed a diversion program for many misdemeanor offenses, including school referrals, called Project SAFE. The juvenile judges exercised their collaborative role to engage stakeholders to develop this program. The court’s intake uses an assessment tool to help determine low-risk youth appropriate for diversion from the system. Douglas County diverts approximately 50% of the referrals with outstanding results. Last year, 225 youths were diverted into various community programs—only 6.8% re-offended.[xv]
Whitfield County Juvenile Court is another example among many courts in Georgia that engage community stakeholders to develop resources and alternatives to delinquent referrals for low-level offenses. The work of Judge Connie Blalock and her staff to develop a collaborative system has reduced referrals to the court by approximately 37% since about 2005.[xvi]
Others utilize informal communications grounded in professional relationships developed using the collaborative role of the judge. In a recent conversation, Judge Phil Spivey of the Juvenile Court in the Ocmulgee Circuit (Milledgeville) described how he engaged the local NAACP for assistance especially as to youth of color who are often overrepresented in school arrests as a result of zero tolerance policies.
For example, black youths with no prior criminal history were six times, and Latino youths three times, more likely to be incarcerated than white youths for the same offenses.[xvii] The same is true involving suspensions. For example, black students are 2.6 times as likely to be suspended as white students.[xviii] According to the Zero Tolerance Task Force of the American Psychological Association, there is no evidence connecting the disparity to poverty or assumptions that youth of color are prone to disruptive and violent behavior.[xix] On the contrary, studies indicate that overrepresentation of black students is related to referral bias on the part of school officials.[xx]
Judge Spivey informally engaged school officials explaining the role of the juvenile court and requested they consider other alternatives for minor school referrals. They did and referrals have slowed down.
In Clayton County, the judges acted as conveners to bring stakeholders to the table to discuss more effective methods of handling minor school offenses. After nine months of meeting, the schools, police, and courts agreed in writing not to refer certain minor school offenses and handle those using alternative programs. The protocol became effective in 2004 and school referrals have since declined by 73%. In addition to using alternatives to suspension, the graduation rates increased from 58% the year prior to the protocol to 81.6% in 2010 –a 23.6% increase.
The protocol effected a change in the way campus police performed their job. Before the protocol, campus police found themselves spending an extraordinary amount of time off-campus transporting students to court intake. After the protocol, police found themselves on campus most of the time engaging the students. This improved relations between the police and student body, which in turn increased the sharing of information from students to police. This school policing approach—grounded in a softer approach—resulted in a safer school campus. During this period, serious weapon offenses fell 70%.
The pre-protocol, zero tolerance days may have appeared tougher on students given the number of arrests, but post-protocol has yielded better results for students, the school, and community. Many have dubbed campus police “Kiddie Cops” because their role has been relegated to disciplinarian—an undeserving label if they are utilized in the truest law enforcement sense—to gather intelligence, prevent violence, and respond at a moment’s notice.  I have not heard that term to describe our campus police in several years, given the fact that they are credited with solving many crimes, including murders, because they have built relationships with students.
Georgia is very fortunate to have a strong Council of Juvenile Court Judges, including its executive director, Eric John, and his staff. There are many examples of judicial leadership demonstrated by our judges throughout this State. Suffice it to say, our judges endeavor to improve their courts by delving into evidence-based programs proven to prevent delinquency and rehabilitate youth. Our judges have exercised leadership to improve court practices by creating court improvement committees to adopt model principles that include collaborative leadership. My colleagues have raised the bar of judicial leadership and I endeavor to keep up with them.
Judge Steven C. Teske serves as Presiding Judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County.

[i] Giedd, J., Blumenthal, J., Jeffries, N., Castellanos, F., Liu, H., Zijdenbos, A., Rapoport, J. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience, 2(10), 861–863.
[ii]Poe-Yamagata, E., & Jones, M. (2000). And justice for some. Washington,D.C.: Building Blocks for Youth.
[iii]Clayton County Juvenile Court. (2010). Juvenile Court Automated Tracking System. Canyon Services, Phoenix, AZ.
[iv]Sweeten, G. (December 2006). Who will graduate? Disruption of high school education by arrest and court involvement, Justice Quarterly, 24(4), 462-480.
[v]U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). Youth violence: A report of the surgeon general. Washington, D.C
[vi]McNeely, C. A., Nonnemaker, J., & Blum, R.W. (2002). Promoting student connectedness to school: Evidence from the National Study of Adolescent Health. Journal of School Health, 72(4), 138–147.
[vii]Rosenfield, L. B., Richman, J. M., & Bowman, G. L. (1998). Low social support among at-risk adolescents. Social Work in Education, 20, 245–260 and Battin-Pearson, S., Newcomb, M.D., Abbott, R.D., Hill, K. G., Cattalano, R. F., & Hawkins, J.D. (2000). Predictors of early high school drop-out: A test of five theories. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(3), 568–582.
[viii]Andrews, D. A., & Bonta, J. (1998). The psychology of criminal conduct. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson and Mendez, L. M. R. (2003). Predictors of suspension and negative
school outcomes: A longitudinal investigation. In J.Wald, & D. Losen (Eds.),New directions for youth development: Deconstructing the school-to-prison pipeline (pp. 17–34). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.
[ix]Mendez, L. M. R. (2003). Predictors of suspension and negative school outcomes: A longitudinal investigation. In J.Wald, & D. Losen (Eds.),New directions for youth development: Deconstructing the school-to-prison pipeline (pp. 17–34). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.
[x]Teske, S., & Huff, B. (2010). The dichotomy of judicial leadership: Using collaboration to improve outcomes for status offenders. Juvenile & Family Court Journal, 61(2), 54–60.
[xi]Teske S. & Huff B., When did making adults mad become a crime? The courts role in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Juvenile and Family Justice Toda, (Winter, 2011), 16.
[xii]Edwards, L. P. (1992). The juvenile court and the role of the juvenile court judge. Juvenile and Family Court Journal, 43(2), 29.
[xiii]Sweeten, 462-80.
[xiv]Andrews,D. A., Bonta, J.,& Hoge, R. (1990). Classification for effective rehabilitation: Rediscovering psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 17(1), 19–52.
[xv]Interview with Judge Michelle Harrison and Jenny McDade, Programs Director for Douglas County, November 7, 2011.
[xvi]Balanced and Restorative Justice in the Whitfield County Juvenile Court, March 2010.
[xvii]Poe-Yamagata, E., & Jones, M. (2000).
[xviii]Wald, J.,& Losen,D. (2003). Defining and re-directing a school-to-prison pipeline. In J.Wald,& D. Losen (Eds.), New directions for youth development: Deconstructing the
school-to-prison pipeline (pp. 9–16).Hoboken, NJ:Wiley & Sons.
[xix]Skiba, R. J. (2000). An analysis of school disciplinary practice. Policy Research Rep.No. SRS2. Bloomington, Indiana Education Policy Center.
[xx]Skiba, 2000


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