Professor Emily Buss has been observing juvenile court proceedings for almost three decades, first as a lawyer, and more recently as a teacher and researcher. In recent years, she has focused on how these proceedings are experienced by young people charged with crimes, and she has grown increasingly concerned.
Buss spoke about that concern, and a possible solution, on February 28 during her Chicago’s Best Ideas lecture, “Court Reform in the Juvenile Justice System: Can a Change in Process Enhance Juvenile Offenders’ Prospects?”
Our juvenile court system was designed not only to punish but to help, and considerable attention has been given to developing programs for young offenders. But little attention has been given to the developmental impact of the court process itself, Buss said.
“I’m particularly interested in thinking about the developmental effect of young people’s experience with the law and the legal process,” Buss said. “How actual engagement with the law, or how the law treats them…shapes them as they grow up.” The negative impressions young offenders often gather of the justice system have potentially disastrous consequences for their own development and society at large, she added.
Too often, the adults in the courtroom – the lawyers, police, and court personnel – alienate the defendant by socializing or joking among themselves and giving scant attention to the defendant or his case, she said. The defendant experiences the hearing as an outsider, unlikely to understand the rapid-fire shorthand and agency acronyms the adults use as they hurry through a heavy caseload, let alone able to participate in the hearing in any meaningful way.
“We should be very worried about what’s going on in juvenile court,” Buss said, pointing out that even the most conscientious judges and lawyers are guilty of conducting hearings and other court business without effectively engaging the young person supposedly at the center of the case.
For example, Buss said, many decisions are made before a hearing even begins, and often they’re communicated only on court documents passed around between the lawyers and judge. Obviously, such decision making is not accessible to the young defendant. Sometimes worse, she said, is when the defendant is given a chance to speak; there is always “a sense of the young person patiently being waited out…it doesn’t change anything that happens going forward.” Unfortunately, she added, a disproportionate number of the defendants are members of racial minority groups, and they understand the system’s disregard in racial terms.
Social science research shows that our experience in court can have a profound effect on our attitude about the law and our commitment to obeying the law. We can expect that effect to be strongest for young people, Buss argued, who are still in the process of developing their attitudes about the world and their place in that world.
For that reason, Buss proposed a new model for judges to use when interacting with juvenile offenders at the sentencing phase of the juvenile court process, one that gives the young person some agency and autonomy in their own future.
Buss modeled her proposals on programs developed in other contexts, including restorative justice conferences and specialized foster care proceedings for adolescents. In these models, young people play a central role in discussions and decision-making, and in the foster care model in particular, that central role takes the form of direct and ongoing discussions between the juvenile judge and the young person. These discussions focus on the young person’s goals for the future and steps required to achieve them, one of the aims built into juvenile justice laws in every state.
Buss said it’s a fairly “basic, simple idea,” but one that has never been tried in the delinquency division of juvenile courts. She is looking for judges to implement a pilot program of this model so she can study the effects and compare young people’s experience in this experimental program with young people’s experience in the traditional juvenile justice process. If this preliminary experience suggests that the pilot program has value for young people, she hopes to find the opportunity to expand its use and study its efficacy more comprehensively in future years.