The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: April 23, 2004
Speakers at California parish strip away illusions of fairness of U.S. system
A two-part series on injustices in the U.S. juvenile justice
By ARTHUR JONES
No child whose feet cant touch the floor when seated facing the judge in chambers should be behind bars, said Cristine Soto. In fact, said public defender Soto, kids 8 years old and up are being arrested and held for trial on charges you and I would assume theyre being grounded for.
Statistically, she said, in 94 cases out of 100, theyre not in court for murder, car jacking or robbery. Theyve tagged the gym wall at school, or been in a fight after school or taken a CD from Tower Records.
Soto was one of a series of speakers earlier this year when parishioners for four Thursdays in a row filled Holy Family Parish hall to hear top names in juvenile justice -- advocates, prison ministers, judges, prosecutors, chiefs of police -- delve deeper into the topic.
Nationwide, more juveniles than ever are being sentenced as adults, judges lament a lack of sentencing flexibility, and state-mandated sentences have grown harsher.
In Holy Family Parish hall, Superior Court Judge Joseph Brandolino, who serves on the California Governors Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, charted the uniqueness of the United States in developing the Western worlds first separate juvenile judicial system -- and then mapped its decline.
Bernard Parks, former Los Angeles Police Department chief, now a city councilman, knows all sides of the issues. His teenage granddaughter was slain on the public sidewalk, a random innocent victim of gratuitous street violence. Today, said Parks, violence begins in the home and spreads into the streets. A vital part of the answer to gangs and juvenile crime, he said, is better education, better housing and more parks.
Leslie Neale, whose latest film, Juvies was shot in California Youth Authority facilities, stripped away any illusions listeners might have had about the fairness and authenticity of how America now handles its juvenile offenders: Ive had a DA tell me, off the record, that one of the girls sentenced 27 to life was not the murderer, but that someone had to go down for the crime.
Ive watched kids navigate alone through the criminal justice system, not being permitted to consult with their parents. Ive seen kids confused about their charges, their case, their court dates, she said.
Ive talked many through suicidal thoughts, knowing that if I told the authorities the kids would be locked in solitary rather than spoken to with heart and love.
Ive heard the fear in the voice of a young man telling me he was tied up to the bunk for fun by his adult cellmates, the fear as a kid describes listening to the cries of someone being raped, girls who take wives so they can be taken care of with sundries such as shampoo and soap, Neale said.
Ive learned that the word rehabilitation was written out of Californias Code of Corrections in 1987, and that although kids do need to pay the price for the crimes they commit, we throw kids into an arcane system bent on excessive punishment, where many kids sit in small cells, locked down 80 to 90 percent of the time, lucky if they have a TV or radio. ...
Ive had judges order me to the bench to ask me why Im in a courtroom for three Asian punks. Because of my husbands connections to the music industry, Ive been asked to help secure a record deal for a judge who really wanted to be a rock-and-roll star rather than speak seriously with me about the redemptive qualities of a 16-year-old boy being transferred to adult court.
I have witnessed more than I could ever tell in a film, mostly due to the fact that no one would believe me.
How does Neale personally handle what she has seen, the echoes of the anguished conversations of the kids inside? She told NCR, I remind myself how incredibly blessed I am to be able to walk this road and bear witness to the injustices our youth face in our criminal justice system. I cry, I laugh, I pray.
The irony as more young Californians are incarcerated is that the system got tougher at a time when, according to the federal National Center for Juvenile Justice, their crime rates were declining in all major categories:
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 2004
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