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February 04, 2023

How 'daring to be different' paid dividends for juvenile courts

“Far too often, juvenile courts look and act like baby criminal courts,” said Judge Richard Ginkowski of the Municipal Court in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.

But some juvenile courts around the country are implementing programs focused on early interventions that could keep teens in courts from graduating to more serious judicial involvement.

A panel of current and former judges discussed the latest innovations in juvenile justice at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in New Orleans. The Feb. 3 program, “Dare to be Different: Think Outside the Box to Improve Juvenile Justice in Your Community,” was co-sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division and Criminal Justice Section.

The panel agreed on these precepts:

Being innovative helps both the children and the community. “We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of delinquent behavior,” said Judge Ranord Darensburg of the Juvenile Traffic Court in Orleans Parish in Louisiana. “We have to meet these kids where they are.”

The mark of a good juvenile justice program is one that keeps youth out of detention, and the panel attested to forward-thinking programs that are working in their communities, including:

  • The Earn-It Program, in which juvenile offenders are hired to clean the courthouse to earn money to pay restitution to the victims. “You have to have restorative justice,” said Stephanie Domitrovich, a retired judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Erie County, Pennsylvania. Another program her jurisdiction is considering would have kids growing crops. “The children learn respect for plants and obviously give to the community,” she said.
  • Darensburg said his office looked at the number of girls coming into the courts and noticed it had gone from about 10% to 14%. Working with fellow panelist Ernestine Gray, retired Juvenile Court judge in Orleans Parish and current chair of the ABA Judicial Division, his court created the Girls Reaching Out Works Wonders program. “Working with data that spoke to what girls respond to,” such as self-esteem and a feeling of belonging, Darensburg said they have seen a reduction in girls coming into court as well as an increase in girls bringing their friends and sisters into the program.
  • Darensburg also zeroed in on data showing that teens in New Orleans were being arrested most often Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays between 3 and 11 p.m. In response, the court started the Evening Reporting Center, a 45-day program that provides individualized supervision and structured activities to those who would normally be held in secure pretrial custody.
  • New Orleans also boasts a Teen Court Program, which offers youth the opportunity to participate in peer-to-peer decision-making for fellow teens who violate the law while also gaining hands-on knowledge of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. “That program has resulted in only one re-arrest” among those who have taken part, Darensburg said.

Ensure everyone has a stake in the outcome. Domitrovich described the team Erie County assembled for each case, including representatives from the legislative, judicial and executive branches, along with a social worker and other providers, which has helped “establish trust,” between the branches of government. The team is involved in the placement of youth as well as in monitoring the placement. “The collaboration is the key to everything we do,” she said.

Be inventive in finding funding. Getting money involves being creative and proactive and forming relationships, Darensburg said. “It takes time.”

His court looks for grants to create programs, then “has to prepare the kids to be in the program.” For instance, one program called for teens to have an ID and a bank account, so the court worked with a bank to get the youth bank accounts. 

But Gray said it’s not always about looking for dollars. She used to look for organizations that are already working with young people to see if they would be willing to help start a program with the court.

Keep lobbying for money to go toward what we say we want. Gray noted that $11,000 is spent per child per year in public school, and $100,000 per child per year in a detention facility. “If we want to change what we are doing, we have to reverse that and put our money where our mouth is,” she said. 

Investments in education and in employment opportunities to parents and teens pay off, she added, and “if we’re depending on judges to solve these problems, we’re never going to solve them.”