April 28, 2008


Article on Juvenile Delinquency Courts

Court System for Juveniles in Disarray:  Study Says State Has Too Many Cases, Not Enough Resources

By Karen de Sa  |  Mercury News  —

California juvenile delinquency courts are plagued by too many cases, too few services for troubled youth and a total bewilderment among many families involved, a two-year study by the state court system has found.

The report, delivered to the California Judicial Council on Friday after what officials are calling the most comprehensive review of its kind, focused on six counties from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But its conclusions — and a list of 58 recommendations — apply throughout the state, the report’s authors said.

“For the bean counters, every kid we can keep out of adult prisons, that’s a whole lot of money, but that’s not what it’s all about,” said Ventura County Judge Brian John Back, who introduced the findings. “It’s really a moral and ethical responsibility that we have.”

The report on problems in juvenile delinquency courts — which handle cases of youths under age 18 accused of crimes — represents the second groundbreaking examination this year for state court administrators of problems in California’s juvenile courts. In March, a commission reported that cases of children removed from their homes after allegations of abuse or neglect receive only perfunctory review in juvenile dependency courts.

The earlier study mirrored the findings of the MediaNews series, “Broken Families, Broken Courts,” which documented critical rulings issued after hearings that lasted mere minutes and publicly funded lawyers who poorly  served theparents and children caught in the system.

Together, the two reports identify a mutual problem that bedevils California’s juvenile courts: judges and attorneys given too few resources to help troubled young clients.

Friday’s report found a disturbing lack of programs for youthful offenders, including inadequate mental health care, drug treatment and services tailored to teenage girls. Without these programs, judges say, public safety is at risk.

Sue Burrell, an attorney with the Youth Law Center, called the Judicial Council report “honest but troubling.” Burrell said it’s gratifying to see the highest court officials in the state tackling problems in the delinquency system. But the next step — investing in change — will be crucial.

“The report is helpful in highlighting the areas where we next need to move — into resource issues,” she said. “None of this will happen without leadership in the judiciary.”

Judge Back said officials now must find ways to lower caseloads and make court hearings more substantive.

Among the most sobering of findings in the juvenile delinquency study was the degree to which parents and youthful offenders find the system incomprehensible. In its haste, the overwhelmed system forgets its most critical players, the report says.

On Friday, Back described such a scene:

“On a typical case, an attorney might say, ‘Well, your honor, the kid was a 601 a couple of years ago, now he’s been picked up on a 422 and a 242, and he’s got an enhancement and we think that maybe you should give him a 654.2.’

“And the judge interrupts and says, ‘But yeah, I’ve got a 186.22 allegation and so the kid appears to be a gang member.’ So when the parents walk out they say: ‘I don’t know what they were talking about in there, but my kid’s not a gang member!'”

When judges have more time for cases in delinquency court, they can connect better with clients, Back said, and turn the court’s “mumbo jumbo” into court orders that stick.

Contact Karen de Sa at kdesa@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5781.