I’m not sure what exactly I had in mind when I entered the juvenile court that first time, but I was shocked by the utter chaos of what I witnessed. The waiting room consisted of three long wooden benches not unlike church pews on each side of the room. Filling them were children parading their defiance, anger, and independence around in unseemly ways while their mothers matched them in maturity level. Disrespect flooded from their mouths and had no boundaries—parents, friends, and officers of the court were all subject to their rage. Occasionally my eyes would rest upon an outlier, a bent-over child with fear paralyzing his movements, whose mother’s eyes were judging all the other mothers and children. These are the one-timers of the system, still afraid by the threats of the judges and police. I wonder to myself if any of the “livelier” children began like this.
We walk into the conference room to talk to the probation officer first. It is made clear that our juvenile friend is not in compliance with his probation. He has avoided school, tested positive for drugs, and missed his curfew, anger management classes, and other obligations. It has been so long in this process that none of us can immediately remember his original crime. Drugs? Theft maybe? Regardless, the punishment looks universal to nearly any crime: Probation, monthly court appearances, and the occasional arrest, depending on the judge’s whim.
We sit back down in the waiting room for another hour as one by one the kids get called into the private courtroom. While their cases are being heard by the judge, their friends are peering through the glass door behind them trying to dramatize the sentencing as it happens. Kids are shouting out of control in respect of their friends. No adult can tame them, and not many try. Kids seem to receive sentences in patterns: a few get on house arrest, and a few get off. Many receive continuances and a slap on the wrist. Very few have done exactly what the court has asked of them, but have worn out the options of the system and get sent away with the stale message to do something with their lives.
Finally, it is our turn to go before the judge. The judge begins to ask our young friend pointed questions, but everyone in the room knows she will not lock him up. Our friend also knows exactly what to say. He shares that he will go to school and “do right,” despite having no intention to do so. He sells his sincerity and ends up on house arrest. Weeks later, having done nothing the judge demanded, he is taken off house arrest, locked up for two weeks, released, and put back on probation. Having been taught nothing, he then continues his usual habits, and before his next court date, he runs away and is still at large.
This is not an unusual story. This is a broken record among the poor young men of Chicago. Brothers and Sisters of Love has spent the past year working with three 16-year-old boys, all of whom have taken turns getting locked up, being placed under house arrest, given community service, and at times even being praised by this system when they feigned improvement. Probation has become a never-ending process with arbitrary tasks to accomplish along the way. It has become a game of luck as the boys bet against any consistent form of punishment. They usually win their bets.
This is so commonplace that the judge and probation officer have absolutely no control or influence over our friend’s actions. There is no respect, fear, or desire to comply. The desire, learned growing up, is always to defy the system.
We see this with all of our three friends. Going to court is part of the routine, uncomfortable perhaps, like getting a shot at the doctor’s office, but in reality no big deal. It is not shameful, unusual, or extraordinarily painful for our friends. It is something that guys their age do.
Inertia causes the train-wreck to continue. At each level, the adults in the system want to care. Judges want these juveniles to mend their ways and have successful lives. Probation officers want to see their caseload succeed. But when your caseload is so large that you cannot remember someone’s name, much less their problems and complex situations, there is no way you have the tools and stamina it takes to succeed. The chance at restoration, counseling, or quality help is out of the question. Everyone is drowning.
What does real juvenile justice look like? Where is the restoration? How do we move from “want” to “accomplish?” Within the system itself, many will admit to the problem, but who has the energy to act? It is time to stop throwing our hands up in despair and put our creative efforts to work in finding a solution. We cannot expect change in patterns of delinquency if we do not change the inputs that allow them to continue. Just as there is sin in many of these juvenile actions, there is equal if not more sin in the inaction of the public on their behalf. On every level, from structural change tocommunity mentoring programs, it is time to fight for our children. Until we begin the fight, we will never come up with the solution.
–Megan Sherrier, BSL
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