A Conversation with a Juvenile Justice Advocate

With Tips on Advocating For Yourself and Your Family

Tanya Washington is an advocate and former defense attorney that has fought for civil rights and justice for decades. Most recently, she has worked to reform the juvenile justice system by providing expertise assistance to state and local leaders and judges who are interested in promoting positive outcomes for at-risk youth.   Her work and influence has resulted in reductions in out-of-home placements in youth in several states. Her hope is that by creating awareness concerning the ongoing injustice prevalent in youth serving systems across the country that she can inspire communities to take up this issue and promote positive change.  One way Tanya does this is through her own blog, justicecorner.com.

 

How did you become involved in advocating for juvenile justice?

It seems as if juvenile justice was part of my inheritance; my mother worked at a state training school for youth when I was young, so I have had exposure to the juvenile justice system for most of my life. Through my mother’s positions as teacher, counselor and administrator, I have had a different view of the system, the youth and their families. I am keenly aware of how response to youth misbehavior has changed and become more punitive over the years. This awareness prompted me after graduating from law school to become a defense attorney at a boutique criminal defense organization in Harlem, New York. Because this organization was located in the community, we were aware everyday of some of the unique challenges of our young clients and were also in a position to advocate at a different level.

After seeing the film Kids for Cash, audiences are shocked at how vulnerable kids are in being arrested and jailed for minor offenses and how damaged they are as a result.  Yet, we’ve learned that this type of zero tolerance practices and resulting treatment of kids exists all across the U. S.  Why is what’s exposed in the film such a shock to parents, community leaders, police, school officials, lawyers, prosecutors and even judges and lawmakers?

Part of the reason this is shocking is that most people believe that juvenile facilities are filled with kids who are a threat to community safety, rather than kids who are engaged in normal adolescent misbehavior. Impressions of the juvenile justice system come from the media that primarily focus on violent crimes (such as school shootings). The reality, however, is that 75% of youth locked in juvenile facilities were placed for non-violent acts (even acts that would not have been crimes if they were adults such as truancy, or underage drinking). Most violent acts committed by young people are actually prosecuted in adult court, not juvenile court. When people become aware that zero tolerance policies have led to the criminalization of the kinds of misbehavior that they may have engaged in when they were young, they are surprised. More importantly, the film does a great job of illustrating the trauma caused by such practices as shackling and being locked in a cell. The awareness of the psychological harm of incarceration is illuminating for all who have never been a typical juvenile facility.

What advice would you give to a parent and child who are currently in the juvenile justice system and feel they are overwhelmed and unprepared?

I would advise parents to not be afraid to advocate for their child (ask for a lawyer, show up in court, and ask questions). Do not consent to anything that you do not understand (having a lawyer can help with this).  Additionally, if their child ends up on probation (as a high percentage of cases do) parent and child should be clear on the conditions listed in the probation contract. Be sure to understand the expectations and potential sanctions as well as the length of time involved, and requirements for completion. If youth or parent for any reason have a conflict, it is important to document that reason in advance (such as in a letter to the probation officer) and get appropriate authorization (make sure to keep copies). Probation violations are a large reason why youth are removed from home and placed in juvenile facilities, so adhering to the agreement is critical.

Positive change and outcomes is a theme throughout your work. What are some examples of the changes and their impact on society?

In recent years I have focused on juvenile system reform. That has involved analyzing juvenile system data, sharing best practices from research, and providing technical assistance to administrators and judges to implement reform strategies. Some jurisdictions have elected to utilize objective decision-making tools to inform use of detention, secure residential placements, and community alternatives. Available resources are then targeted towards those youth who may be engaged in riskier behavior, rather than those who may have made a more isolated mistake. The impact is that fiscal resources can be shifted towards evidence-based community options which are more rehabilitative and less expensive. As a result, recidivism decreases, the community is safer and youth are better off.

What should people say or do to urge their elected officials to work towards policy change, like restorative justice?

People first should encourage elected officials to pass policies requiring the collection of juvenile system data so that new policies can have an analytical basis. Knowing the demographics of youth being referred to juvenile court, the referral source (including schools), the level of offenses (including status offenses), risk scores, and outcomes (for example: diversions, prosecutions, detentions and secure confinement) is helpful to policy makers as well as community members. Additionally, research should be used to identify better options for youth – options that are more effective in addressing challenging behaviors. Restorative justice practices are a great way to hold youth accountable, involve victims, and teach empathy without having to subject youth to the shame and stigma of a locked facility. If we want young people to learn from their mistakes, but also have the opportunity for a bright future, communities need to evolve from a punishment mentality to one that focuses on accountability and restoration.

Director’s Point of View

I have two teenage children who were ages 10 and 13 at the time we began production on Kids For Cash.  My own missteps in raising my kids included the principle that if you do an “adult crime, you should do adult time.”  But one of the most fundamental things I’ve learned (which in hindsight seems so obvious) is that the human brain continues to develop through a person’s mid-twenties.  The delay in frontal lobe development is precisely why young people are so impulsive: their ability to think logically or foresee risk is still maturing, so expecting perfect behavior is unrealistic.  I wish I had understood this 10 years ago!

Confessions Of A Former Prankster

Tips For Heading Back To School…  And Not Jail

Smart, funny and creative, 14-year-old Hillary established a fake MySpace page making fun of her school’s vice principal. Though she put a disclaimer on the page stating it was a joke, several months later, Hillary’s mother received a call from the police informing her that her daughter was about to be arrested and charged with terrorist threats.

How did the police become involved with a school-related MySpace prank?

That’s an excellent question. How did the police become involved? I suppose someone will have to ask my vice principal, or perhaps the police. Otherwise, the best I can give you is this:

I was on the phone one night with my friend, chatting away, when my mom called up the stairs to my bedroom, “Hillary, do you know anything about a Myspace page?”

My heart fell into my stomach. If my mom knew I had created a mock page for my principal, I was clearly about to get chastised for it. Being reprimanded by my mother isn’t exactly a pleasant thing to endure. Have you ever watched videos of Mount St. Helen erupting? It’s kind of like that.

I never lied to my mother, though. I was usually pretty good about that as a kid. If I’d been caught, I’d been caught. No sense in making things worse by lying. So I told her I made it.

Then she walked away talking on her cell phone. I told my friend I had to go and hung up the house phone. From there, I sat across from my mother at the dining room table watching the look of horror on her face as she talked on the phone. When she hung up (my brothers had all gathered around the table by then too), she informed my whole family that a police officer had just called to let her know he wanted to arrest me for a Myspace page about my vice principal.

I slunk up to my bedroom teary eyed as my brother’s filed their–very loud–grievances at my back.

I was never actually arrested, maybe the police officer was petrified of my mother–I know I was–but I did receive a letter in the mail stating that I was to appear in juvenile court.

You unknowingly waived your rights to counsel. How did this happen?

Another really great question. A combination of nervousness and fear.

Like I said, my mom taught me that once you’ve been caught doing something bad, you own up to it. We figured if I was a really good girl who did everything the nice court people told me to do, I wouldn’t get in as much trouble.

I walked into the courthouse that day, approached a table where a nice lady was sitting, asked her about my court time. She handed me a piece of paper.

“Do you have an attorney?” she asked.

“Nope.” I said.

“Sign here.”

My mother and I signed the paper. That was all, really. I guess we both had this thought like, “This must be the form to get a public defender assigned to you.”

I mean, even I knew that a child has to have an attorney. It’s just that, you think if you’re a kid someone’s watching out for you. In my case, my mom was watching out for me, but I think she was expecting the court to do that, too. It’s juvenile court, so they deal with kids all the time–that’s why it’s separate from adult court, because kids get handled differently, gentler. Or at least that’s what we thought.

That kind of thinking is dangerous. It allows people to do what they did to me, to control people because they’re naïve enough to trust them. Some people are there to watch out for you. You can identify them by their loving attitude and the way they hold your hand when you’re scared. But everyone else you should be wary of. Not rude, never impolite, but just aware that their best interests and yours might conflict.

Describe the camp for delinquent girls. How did this experience change you?

I was sent to a wilderness camp for delinquent girls. Essentially, it’s a juvenile placement facility where you mostly eat all day, drip tears all over the letters you write home to the real world–the one you’re not invited to participate in anymore.

You sleep, eat, sit in a classroom where nobody teaches you anything and you learn nothing (this is where most of your letters are written), return to camp, eat, bathe, sleep.

Being sent to camp was like…imagine your life as a straight line, then imagine you jump off the timeline to a line running parallel to it but in the same direction. So, essentially, a parallel universe.

The real world stops. But time keeps moving.

Each night you go to sleep, you close your eyes and dream of home. When you wake up, you wake up in your new reality; the love of your friends and family vanish. And when you get out? It’s the opposite. Despite the comforts of home, when you go to sleep at night, you go back to jail.

You get told why you deserve to be there every day. Some counselors are there for the children; some are there for the minimum wage employment that only requires a high-school diploma. The ones there who need a job are awful; the people there because they love children–somehow they make it easier.

The truth is, it matters very little what the camp is like. I was only there for three weeks.

You could be sent to a five-star hotel, sipping lemonade pool-side, with a fluffy, white towel bunched up under your head: It’s not the facility they send you to, it’s the moment the gavel comes down.

You know, on some deep, instinctual level–even though your fifteen-year-old brain can’t quite make sense of it–that you are no longer the master of your own fate. You are at the whims and mercy of adults; those tall, stiff-backed monsters with scowls on their faces and fangs hidden behind their lips. The cuffs or shackles, are reaffirmation of what you now know in your heart to be true: you are different, separate, unwanted. You have just become the thing people lock their doors against at night.

After being treated that way by society, being told you’re not a member anymore…would you want to go back? Would you want to be a part of a society that hates you? 

The experience doesn’t change you, you’re still very much you, but everything around you changes. The police officer that follows you to the bank when you deposit the money from the cash register at work was once a nice guy, looking out for you in case you’re robbed. Now you look in your rear view mirror and wonder if he only really does this because he thinks you’re a thief.

I guess the difference is, before you get sent to juvenile detention you only suspect that most adults are cruel. Afterwards, you know they are.

Although…

Your case launched the ‘Kids for Cash’ investigation by the Juvenile Law Center. How has that experience changed you?

…Can this question be changed to “why is Juvenile Law Center super awesome?” No? Well, I’ll slip it in right here: Juvenile Law Center is super awesome.

There I was, fresh out of prison, feeling like a real outcast.

Juvenile Law Center is like the traversal worm hole that pulled me back out of that parallel universe…without slowly crushing every molecule in my body over a period of millions of years.

Hmm. Bad analogy.

When I came back to my community, not only did I not feel that I belonged, but other people felt that way too. I was a “juvenile delinquent” –whatever that means. Kids thought I was cool for going to jail, and adults didn’t want me anywhere near their kids.

Juvenile Law Center were these weird adults who thought I was smart for some reason. They were like, “We love children. We have your best interests at heart. Not only are we going to help you, but every kid in your county!” So basically, after a group of adults manipulated and condemned me, Juvenile Law Center stepped in to flip my whole perception of adults on its head. They were proof that there were adults, people in this world, who were not vindictive, evil, or mean. They told me how brave I was, so I was honest and forthright with them. I have to admit, for the past seven years of my life I’ve been terrified that at any minute they’ll find out what an awful kid I was. Although, I’m pretty sure–they’re all really brilliant people at JLC–they know exactly who I am. It has never seemed to matter that I still have a smart mouth, or that I still got into trouble every once in a while as a kid.

That’s what love is, right? It’s accepting both the good and bad in people but continuing to care about them anyway? Yeah, love is the right word for that; I felt love from them.

I guess you’re asking more about the scandal itself. The best way to explain how I feel about the scandal in general is to explain it like this:

Imagine you forgot to pay your phone bill once, so your phone was shut off. The Phone Customer Law Center (PCLC) is like, “Hey, they didn’t notify you that if you forgot to pay the bill, your phone could be shut off! We’re getting your phone turned back on!” Through the process of turning your phone back on, PCLC discovers that 3,000 other customers also got their phones shut off unfairly. So PCLC gets 3,000 phones turned back on, but at the end of the day, you’re just the guy who didn’t pay his phone bill.

Yeah, it feels something like that.

I do have to say that because of what my case allowed Juvenile Law Center to do, I would go through the whole ordeal again. If I could go back in time, I honestly don’t think I’d do a single thing over.

Do you ever feel like life is this big, cosmic coincidence? Like some sort of meticulously weaved tapestry? I feel like my threads have had such a positive effect on so many others, it would be selfish to wish I could undo that experience or unweave a beautiful work of art. Thanks to Juvenile Law Center, and their work with the Kids for Cash scandal, something that very well could have been a tragedy, has been the greatest blessing of my life. That’s how that experience feels to me.

As a cautionary note: Life doesn’t always work out this way for everyone so pay your phone bill, so to speak.

As classes open this coming school year, what advice would you have for teenagers about pranks and their rights? What advice would you give administrators and law enforcement about the long term effects of zero tolerance policies on kids?

First, the advice I have for teenagers about pranks is probably something I need to keep reminding myself of as an adult: Not everybody thinks you’re funny.

I know, I know. It’s hard advice to take. You think you’re hilarious, I certainly think I am. It’s just that, as it turns out, most people don’t enjoy being made fun of. Sure, you goof around with your friends and teachers. I’ve even had a few teachers over the years who I’ve maintained friendships with because they enjoyed my sense of humor so much. Those people are very special, and I’m sure if you think about it long enough, you could probably identify those people in your own life.

Unfortunately, there are some people who are offended by criticism, however light-hearted or innocent our true intentions are. Even some of your fellow peers probably don’t like being the butt of an especially clever joke. So just learn to tell the difference between someone who can appreciate a good joke, and someone who might be offended by one. I’ll give you a hint: your school administration members might be the kind that get offended.

This advice is great, but accidents do sometimes happen, so lets get to the next part of this answer: your rights.

You definitely have rights. Go you! But slow down there, little Timmy, what’s that you say? The right to behave like a jerk in order to demonstrate those rights? Well, hold on, pal, because people tend not to respect things you abuse or make use of with an attitude.

All kidding aside, if you ever have the misfortune of being called to the principal’s office or apprehended by a police officer, you have the right to refuse to say anything until you have a parent or guardian present. If you are worried about your rights potentially being violated, you have the opportunity to say to your principal, or whichever adult is present, “I am uncomfortable speaking without my parents. I would like to wait until someone with my best interests in mind has arrived.” In a school setting, think of your parents as drastically underpaid lawyers. (In a police setting, think of lawyers as lawyers).

This is not, however, an opportunity to kick your principal in the shins, making loud exclamations about how you have rights so you’re not speaking to anyone until your parents have arrived. Yes, you have rights. You even have the right to demonstrate them rudely, but take it from me–people are less willing to respect your rights if you are being disrespectful.

Sometimes people will violate your rights even if you’re being respectful, which is when it becomes even more important to remain calm and polite. If anybody sees you reacting in anger, they will still take the side of the person who initiated the rudeness. You look better when someone is screaming at you, and you’re accepting it graciously. Just insist, in a calm and respectful tone, that you refuse to speak on the subject until mom or dad appears.

To the law enforcement officials and school administration members who are responsible for protecting these children? Do better.

If a kid is being rude or disrespectful, lashing out in some way, it’s probably because the kid is scared. The best thing you can offer, even to a disrespectful little snot who’s calling you every awful name in the book, is your concern, care, and comfort.

You are a servant of the community in a position of immense power over the life of a child. The question is: What are you going to do with it?

Zero tolerance policies are a cold, inhuman set of policies based upon principles of intolerance which lack humanity.

But you are human. Zero tolerance may not have room for consideration of circumstances, but you do. You don’t have to call the police because Jimmy accidentally left a lighter in his bag, or because Alexis got into a fight with another girl in gym class. If you’re not the kind of person that would be willing to compromise on the rules in order to protect the future of a child, please become an active opponent of zero tolerance policies in your district because the zero tolerance policies that dictate these “rules” are detrimental to the lives of the children you are trying to educate.

There are two kinds of evil people in this world: People who do evil things, and people who see evil things being done who do nothing. I feel no embarrassment by making the (what some might consider “radical”), statement that zero tolerance policies are evil. They are a gross injustice being inflicted upon our children–yes, our children–everyday.

Kids have enough things to worry about without adults actively trying to ruin their lives. Think about the power you wield in a relationship with a child. Use it wisely.