Juvenile Injustices

Court change means some kids have less than a snowball's chance of staying out of hell

Steven Bernstein, an attorney in private practice, says most Corp Counsel lawyers lack perspective because they've never prosecuted what he calls "real" crimes.

"They have trouble differentiating between what's serious and what's not," he says. "They'll prosecute anything that comes through." Corp Counsel attorneys, Bernstein says, tend to seek the harshest penalty—juvenile lockup—over less drastic, more effective alternatives.

That juvenile jails fail to rehabilitate is borne out by available statistics. A 1999 study commissioned by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services found that 81 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls released from state lockup were rearrested within three years.

Shipping point: Kings County Family Court
photo: Kristi Forschen
Shipping point: Kings County Family Court

Uprooting kids is not only ineffective, it also damages already fragile communities, says Sam Anderson, education director at the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College. Boys see juvenile jail as glamorous—doing time "upstate" is worth a certain amount of street cred. They come home with tougher fronts and prison values, which rub off on kids who were never troublemakers before. "So many go through the system," he says, "it has become a rite of passage."

Family Court is a place where families can be turned upside down after noisy arguments. Difficult kids can be locked up for acting like difficult kids. And if the judge is someone like Mary O'Donoghue, they might get a dose of parenting from the bench.

With the peevishness of a Judge Judy, she interrogates each child on his or her aspirations. Not too long ago, she asked a defendant, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

The kid, smirking, replied, "A bus driver!"

To which the judge said, "Well, that's a wonderful aspiration. Do you know you have to be able to read, you have to take a test, to do that? And you can't be on drugs, right?"

On the other hand, O'Donoghue is just as likely to reprimand an overeager new prosecutor. In a recent case, ACC Craig Hanlon was out of his seat every few minutes while a police officer was being cross-examined by a defense lawyer. Finally, O'Donoghue gently asked Hanlon, "Why do you make so many objections?"

Less than a year out of law school, Hanlon was struck dumb. O'Donoghue then advised him, "Search for the truth."

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