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Monday, March 01, 2010

"Baby Court" A Place For Not Giving Up On Kids

The Denver Post
I return to 191-J. It's the Denver juvenile courtroom with the recent one-day only bargain for those with outstanding judgments or warrants. The reaction to the deal was mixed, with most criticism along the lines of holding people accountable for their behavior. I'd like to observe this courtroom exists precisely due to the void of accountability.
An origin story. About 25 years ago, a city attorney named David Ramirez is hearing from police officers catching kids on minor offenses the district attorney's office won't take because they're penny-ante: Some kid stealing Oreos, kids fist-fighting in the park, a kid wobbling down the street, drunk. Parents might take it seriously. Might not.
None of it rose to the level that'd warrant state charges.
So Ramirez starts talking to community people, probation officers, judges, the district attorney's office and eventually his conversations lead to the creation of 191-J in 1987. It was dedicated to first-time offenders of low-level municipal offenses. It was to be the court where the judge gives kids lectures, then puts them in programs or public service projects where common sense would prevail.
Ramirez had joined the bench by then — and he'd eventually leave amid controversy he was too lenient — but he was 191-J's first judge. From this perch, revelation was only a short time coming: We're just scratching the surface.
"It wasn't just some kid decides to steal or smoke some dope,"

Ramirez tells me. "It had to do with the parents or the lack of parenting or the lack of resources. We weren't capable of dealing with all the issues. We still aren't." I'm telling all this to Regina Huerter, the executive director of the city's Crime Prevention and Control Commission. The commission has been examining the cases filed in 191-J and whether kids are getting into the right systems and services.
What was conceived as a courtroom for first-time offenders with minor offenses started to see more serious crimes perpetrated by repeat offenders. Kids with a string of J-offenses and the most severe punishment the court can dole out is a couple days in a crisis center or an ankle monitor. The screening has improved, but kids still call it "baby court." 191-J has become too a courtroom where a daily balancing act plays out.
"I did most of that stuff when I was a kid," Huerter says. "It used to be something your parents, the school would say, 'Knock it off.' Now, it's a crime.
"There's a huge fear that by taking official action we are putting kids into the system who shouldn't be there, that we are criminalizing adolescent behavior. At the same time, it does us no good to let kids get away with everything."
Think about it. We have in this city a courtroom born more than 20 years ago into a vacuum. An emptiness left largely by parents who don't know any better or can't do any better or should just plain know better. But it is also the emptiness of political and social expediency, of short-sightedness. 191-J exists as both necessity and indictment.
"The discussion we need to have is not so much about the court," Huerter says. "It's about the accountability of parents, schools, community. It really is about who is raising our children."
I go back to the court because it is a window. From it I see a judge who will not give up on these young defendants, who calls 191-J "a court of hope," who somehow walks this tightrope between criminalization and consequences. I see parents who are not indifferent — though I know they exist and blaming them is so convenient — but who do not know what else to do. A dad fed up with his seventh-grade son's thieving of whatever he can lay his hands on at school, a box of paper clips, a trophy. "I was going to school with him the first three periods, but as soon as I'd leave, he'd change," dad says.
Friday's docket holds cases of young people who also suffer mental illness, several of whom are progressing well at home and in school. But I am left with the image of a 13-year-old girl who stands before the judge, insolent and chewing gum, with a new ticket for shoplifting. Reading glasses, this time.
She blinks not an eye when he reads her statement from the police report. "It's just another ticket. It don't mean nothing." She sneers at her mother who appears stunned when her daughter admits she'd been smoking marijuana. "I try to talk to her, to be her mother," the woman says to the judge, and the girl says, "you don't try to talk to me."
Her bored expression never changes. Not when the judge tells her she needs to change her attitude. Not when he sentences her to a weekend at the Family Crisis Center. Not when a sheriff's deputy cuffs her.
Outside the courtroom, her mom says: "She needs the wake-up call." And she's grateful.

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