Thursday, September 29, 2005

Muni Judge: System failing youth offenders

Austin municipal court Judge John Vasquez has an op ed in today's Austin Statesman describing how the criminal justice system is failing youthful offenders and disrupting the lives of mostly minority students. Writes Vasquez:

About 90 percent of the juveniles subject to warrants are minority children.

Almost 6,000 non-traffic, criminal charges are filed annually against juveniles between the ages of 10 and 16 in the Austin Municipal Court — a ratio of about one case filed for every 13 children in that age range. The charges range from possession of drug paraphernalia to disorderly conduct to curfew violation. These are Class "C" misdemeanors — the lowest-level criminal offense, punishable by fine only. About four out of every five cases are filed against African American and Hispanic juveniles.

In Travis County Justice of the Peace Courts, more than 7,000 criminal cases are filed annually against children for not attending school.

For many of these youths, timely and effective court intervention is desperately needed. But their cases move through the system much too slowly. Months may pass between the date of the alleged offense and the first court appearance. The Travis County Justice of the Peace Courts and the Austin Municipal Court are high-volume operations, easily processing more than 300,000 cases annually. Little time can be spared for juvenile offenses.

Vasquez thinks the solution lies in a "system of juvenile case managers [who] will work with young offenders and their families to identify programs and services that will help them overcome obstacles to success." I'd think an even better solution, though, would be to stop criminalizing so much petty juvenile behavior in the first place.

I cut school occasionally as a teenager. How about you? It wasn't a crime back then, just a violation of school rules. A fine wasn't attached, but you know what? I turned out okay.
Those 7,000 kids in Austin being mulcted by the courts for playing hookie aren't any better off for the experience, and fining them won't make them better people. Same with tickets for breaking curfew - we're criminalizing behavior nearly all youth engage in at one time or another, so what's the point? In practice, it's just a cash cow for municipal government, a discriminatory law enforcement practice from the perspective of the minority kids targeted, and a big waste of time for everybody involved.

There are enough kids committing actual crimes to worry about without criminalizing class-cutting and plain ol' youthful rebellion.


Shirley said...

If the only problem you have to deal with is a kid who cuts school once or twice, consider that you got off lucky. I work with people who got their start in a life of crime with selling drugs, stealing cars, and shooting people while they were still in high school. They needed intervention from the court system. Some of them came out of the prison experience having learned a lesson- and some never will. But taking a kid to school for missing a class? Let's use the court resources wisely.

Anonymous said...

Some kids go to prison and learn how to be better criminals. How's that for higher education?