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Rant: There Are Days

There are days when I feel like tossing in the towel. The system we’ve built — the one I work in, the one we’ve arbitrarily decided to call the “justice” system — is so utterly destructive of our society that it almost feels criminal to do anything at all that allows it to continue to exist. It does not feel fixable. It feels very much like the only real option is to either move on in the realization that I will never recover from law school, that the money spent on that “education” is gone, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Will it matter when I’m gone that I fought a case to a pointless and unfair conviction? I don’t know.

Certainly, I’m not the only attorney out there doing what I do. At least, I don’t think I am. But sometimes I wonder.

When I walk out of a courtroom where I’ve engaged in yet another argument which should be unnecessary, and I am surrounded by the families of young black or men — they almost always seem to be young black or brown men — which is another indication, itself, that the system is broken (what? white boys don’t do anything wrong?) — and those families are all asking how they can get me to defend their sons, I wonder.

But it can’t be true; I’ve watched other attorneys fight some of the same battles. Sure, I’ve watched a number also who appear to just “go through the motions” of handling cases, as if they’ve resigned themselves in a way I’m unable to do, to the inevitable reality that the judges really aren’t going to concern themselves with finding out what is actually in the best interests of our kids.

Little known fact — and it’s little known because it’s little practiced — the juvenile court system is supposed to be different than the adult court system. The emphasis in the juvenile court is supposed to be on rehabilitation. So far as I can tell, the judges, probation and the deputy district attorneys think this means that while you’re pounding the shit out of the young people brought to court, you say that you’re doing it for their own good: a modernized bullshit version of “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” that fathers of old sometimes said before raising welts on the back of their kids legs with rods, belts, paddles, or sticks. I have seldom seen a judge seriously ponder the question of what’s the best way to reach a particular kid.

And the kids, aside from most often being from the underprivileged class of our classless society, usually need more than the three or four options — electronic monitor, community service, incarceration without counseling, or imprisonment with nominal counseling — from which the court will almost certainly choose.

In one sense, this isn’t even entirely the fault of the courts. I just came through one case where, at every hearing from the first week of January through the last week of March, I requested a court order that my client receive a pair of glasses and be placed on the medications he was previously taking. (His glasses were lost and, for unknown reasons, medication stopped, at or just prior to his arrest.) And at every hearing — for ten hearings — the court granted my request and made the order. For ten hearings!

When I went into the next courtroom the day after the last hearing in March, I made a similar request. The court stated that it was sure probation would take care of this. I then told the court what had happened in the other case. Two things occurred next.

First, the court asked, “Based on what you’re saying, Mr. Horowitz, what good would it do for me to make an order?”

I can pretty much guarantee you the court would have an idea of what to do if a defense attorney had been the target of the orders.

The second thing that happened is that the probation officer decided — since, after all, there’s really nothing else she could do to justify the treatment of minors under probation’s care — that a personal attack on me was in order: “Judge, he’s not telling you the whole story.”

Actually, she was right. Since the judge had interrupted me with his comment, I had stopped talking, and before I could go on with anything else, she jumped in with her “he’s not telling you the whole story” comment. She said, “There were extenuating circumstances.”

Yes, there were. The extenuating circumstances were that the probation department lost the initial set of glasses and apparently didn’t have time for someone to visit the client to do a medication evaluation. When — after the fourth request — the minor was taken for an eye exam, the clinic refused to see him because, as it was related to the court, there was apparently some problem with the county’s contract. I don’t recall the exact wording, but got the impression that the county had not been able to find an optometrist willing to accept the work on the county’s terms, so there had been a delay in providing necessary care to minors.

In any event, the “we haven’t taken the time to set up contracts for the proper care of the minors” is not an “extenuating circumstance.” It’s a decision. It’s the same decision that keeps the county from being able to make more than pretense of meeting the primary purpose of the juvenile court system: rehabilitation.

Instead, juvenile courts are used as “training grounds” for new deputy district attorneys, or dumping grounds for those who have irritated the boss.

With predictable results for the kids.

Those who somehow manage to survive the system will do so in spite of the “rehabilitative efforts” of the courts, not because of them.

And, in the end, I guess that’s the only real thing that keeps me involved. Someone has to try to help these kids. The courts have neither the desire, the time, nor the resources. Many of the other attorneys have the desire, but not the time or the resources.

Hell, I don’t know if I have the time or the resources. I know it wears me down. I know I get so tired of fighting the people who are supposed to be trying to rehabilitate these kids, but who on their best days simply manage to avoid making things worse.

And I know this, too: our failure to deal with these issues now means that we’re going to deal with worse issues later. The system is already broken primarily because of lack of resources. The judges, DDAs and probation have given up trying not just from lack of training, lack of knowledge and lack of desire, but because their choices are limited. So they move from trying to find the best way to rehabilitate, to acting like they work in the adult courts: let’s go for the sentence that will keep these kids out of the way the longest, until they’re old enough to lock up in prisons.

Me? I can only try to help as long as I can hold out, meanwhile praying that the system will collapse upon itself sooner, rather than later, and that the collapse will be so devastating we’ll be unable to lock up any more kids.

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