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A Criminal Society

I was involved in a case this morning that made my blood boil — so much so that I kept wondering if I would make it out of the courtroom without saying something that would get me locked up. I (aided by other attorneys discussing the case) fumed about it for hours afterward. Returning to my office, I wanted nothing more than to go out looking for another line of work and to join those who think this system cannot be fixed: it must be violently torn down.

I’ve finally calmed down enough, I hope, to write a sensible post about it.

A small part of my practice involves an agreement I made to accept “conflict appointments” from the juvenile court. Not that it matters — except that I want to stress it is supposed to be a small part of my practice and has ended up, because of the horrific way juvenile “justice” is administered and the way I try to deal with it, consuming much more time than I could ever have expected — but I negotiated a “limited” contract: I accept no more than 5 cases per month.

Most of these cases resolve fairly quickly as they involve kids who have done something fairly clearly wrong and they have confessed about it. I am consistently, however, amazed at the number of times juveniles are charged with what on their faces would appear to be fairly serious felonies, but for the fact that when I was in school, myself and my peers did the same things on a monthly basis with usually nothing more serious than what I believe today is referred to as a “time-out,” or, for the really serious things such as where someone was beaten up, an expulsion.

But that was then; this is now. A former prosecutor to whom I spoke today indicated that if, when he was a child, the things they did were charged as crimes like they are today, he would have had problems being admitted to the State Bar. The same is true of me and most older attorneys I know.

So my goal in most cases is not to help a child escape punishment, but to keep the punishment reasonable. That, by itself, appears to be exactly the opposite of the job of the prosecutor, probation and, sadly, many of the judges.

I have no doubt — not a single solitary one — that the judges believe they are also about the business of finding reasonable punishments. But if today proves anything, it proves that they are not, for the only reasonablepunishment today would have been to dismiss the case and have whoever filed it brought before the court and flogged.

When I arrived at the court for a new arraignment this morning, it occurred to me that I could make up for having missed my morning work-out by simply picking my client up in one hand and doing 50 or a hundred quick “curls.” I’m pretty sure my client was small enough for that.

The charges against my client were about as trivial as I could possibly imagine. So trivial, in fact, that I could not restrain my disgust and anger at the fact they had even been filed.

“I heard someone spit on the grass after this incident,” I stated. “Why are there no felony vandalism charges?”

The prosecutor, unsurprisingly, went off like a not-so-small firecracker. The judge mildly reprimanded me, pointing out, perhaps rightly, that my comments would not help in achieving a resolution of the case. Though my blood was boiling and I was thoroughly disgusted with what can only be called a spectacle of “justice,” I attempted to rein myself in. To my own disgrace, I offered an apology.

I should have done no such thing. The prosecutor and the court should be apologizing. For the triviality of the charge is undeniable. When I was a child of that age, if — and I have to stress if — I had received any significant punishment beyond a scolding, I might have been paddled. (When I said this in court, I was informed that “this is a different world.” Indeed.)

Of course, we no longer paddle children. That’s barbaric.

Instead, we saddle them. With criminal charges. Because taking pre-teens and telling them that they are criminals for doing something that innumerable pre-teens have done since time immemorial is so much less barbaric.

Without a doubt, my client and about a half-dozen other kids similarly charged for this “crime” were technically guilty of it. Furthermore, from what I understand, all were instantly remorseful and apologetic and submitted to punishment from the school at which the “crime” was committed.

To this minute, I cannot for the life of me imagine why they were charged. Although I have no independent evidence for this, it lends a great deal of credence to what I was told subsequently — the “victim” of the “crime” is the child of a former law enforcement officer. That was information I received from another attorney, who implied this explained the charges.

And, frankly, that perfectly fits with what happens in this county. The one group you mess with on fear of losing your liberty, and sometimes even your life, is law enforcement. This is true even if your “crime” is damaging property held jointly in your name (2015 update: Fresno Bee story disappeared), plus that of a law enforcement officer. This is true if you are a white woman working for the local Fire Department; it is much more true a bunch of little brown kids in an outlying school district. God forbid you should end up in a tiff with someone related to a law enforcement officer. But all hell will break loose if you also happen to be brown.

But the worst part of this disgustingly shameful episode is the failure of the court to recognize that a resolution that includes running these kids through the juvenile justice system is not in the best interests of anyone, particularly these children. What does that teach them? That — at the ripe old age of 10 or 11 years of age — they are already to be seen as criminals? That the mildest misbehavior can result in some fairly harsh punishment?

Doubtful.

I think what it teaches these kids, if it teaches them anything, is that the so-called “justice” system is really just a tool for the powerful to use against the less powerful. It teaches them that “crime” is really just something that someone else doesn’t like. After all, when every small problem is elevated to the level of misdemeanor charges, the result is that the idea of misdemeanor charges is trivialized.

In fact, I now tell my clients who come to me with misdemeanor charges, who are devastated by the fact of being charged, that it no longer carries the stigma it once did. Misdemeanor, schmisdemeanor. It no longer really means anything.

In a world where the law is so out of whack with common sense that the average citizen commits three felonies a day without even trying — and without intending to do so — who cares about misdemeanors? To the juvenile court, they’ve become a right of passage. If the courts and prosecutors have their ways, no one will make it to adulthood without a record.

So, really, I guess I should not get so fired up about this after all. In a society of criminals, my kid today will stand out as one of the sweet ex-cons.

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