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Disposition

Yesterday morning I had a juvenile hearing. We call it a “Disposition.” The term shares a relationship, via Latin, with “dispose,” as in “dispose of.”

It is nevertheless appropriate, given what usually happens. I don’t have the book with me, so I can’t quote from it directly. But Edward Humes has an excellent book titled No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of the Juvenile Court. It discusses, among other things, the fact that juvenile courts focus virtually all their attention on process. Only incidentally do they “focus” upon the kids. The book was written before California’s budgetary crisis, back when there was still some kind of funding for juvenile programs.

As to the connection between “disposition” and “disposing of” kids, an excellent case in point comes from another Disposition a few weeks ago,wherein we disposed of another juvenile, in what may turn out to be the literal meaning of the phrase.

David (not his real name) was a kid who came from a background that virtually guaranteed any intelligent kid with an urge to survive was going to turn out to be a hoodlum. I won’t go into details of his family life for the same reason I changed his name, but suffice it to say “there’s not a lot of support there.” With his peers, his natural intelligence and ability to influence caused him to fare much better.

He was off and running toward a life unproductive by most of society’s standards.

Somehow, though, he avoided getting caught up in the law enforcement net — and thus the juvenile courts — until just past his mid-teens. (Many juveniles in his position will come into the system in their early teens, if not sooner.) He had the “good luck” that his very first encounter with law enforcement was in the list at California’s Welfare and Institutions Code section 707(b).

That meant he was eligible to be disposed of via the youth prison, as opposed to less onerous forms of “rehabilitative efforts,” such as probation, community service, or even local incarceration where his family could easily visit.

For a reason I still can’t completely explain — I wasn’t defending him at the time, so I don’t have all the details as to what happened — the judge chose not to follow the recommendation of Probation. He was instead committed to a local program which actually has some success at helping turn kids around. I suspect it had quite a lot to do with the fact that it was his first encounter with the system and the judge — who normally has no qualms whatsoever about giving out inappropriate Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ; i.e., “youth prison”) commitments — decided to give him at least onechance.

At any rate, in David’s case, it worked. He engaged in the program. He began to change. He continued to be something of a leader amongst his peers, but in a different way. Counselors and guards would later write that he had become interested in learning more about what motivated his own self and in developing “pro-social skills.” His prior record while incarceratedhad shown repeated instances of disrespecting probation officers and guards in the local facility where he was held while his case was pending. He had been engaged in various sorts of behaviors that resulted in an active set of “chronos.”

Let me say something here about “chronos.”

“Chronos” is the short-hand term for “chronological record,” or “records” of wrongdoing while being held in a pod. It’s not terribly hard to develop an active chronological record. To a certain extent, it depends upon the people running the pod. Youth can have “chronos” entries for failing to move fast enough when given a direction, where “fast enough” is defined by the individual who gave the direction. I have had kids tell me that they were written up for not understanding a direction and therefore not reacting quickly enough.

The “chronos” grow if you stand on the toilet to talk through air vents with another kid (because, after all, who wants to spend hours locked up alone in a small cell?), for banging on the door (don’t get bored, whatever you do!), for having a pencil when you aren’t supposed to (because, again, we want them locked up, in isolation, with nothing to do that would encourage thinking), as well as for the more serious acts such as attempting to provoke a fight, or actually getting into an altercation.

Prior to his initial disposition, and being committed to the rehabilitative program, David’s “chronos” were quite active. But, as I said, the program began to work its magic for him. Although not all youth respond to the program, David did. At some point, his “chronos’ are blank. No more incidents. Not so much as moving too slowly. And this lasted for months.

One day, however, some kid jumped another kid in front of David. Even according to the probation officer’s report, the attack was “vicious.” The guards — from David’s perspective — appeared not to be interested in intervening, beyond yelling “yard check.” David lay there in the “yard check” position, face down, hands behind his head, watching his friend being beaten right in front of him and no one stopping it.

So he jumped up and knocked the attacker off his friend.

David was charged with a violation of probation for what I attempted to argue was “defense of others.” He ended up admitting to the violation of probation because, as he himself said, he “should have let the guards handle it.” But emotion had kicked in, seeing his friend being viciously beaten before his very eyes.

Probation’s recommendation was predictable. This new incident showed David to be incorrigible, not amenable to local rehabilitative efforts, not interested in changing his ways. The report said that he and the friend he defended were members of the same gang; the minor who attacked his friend, and who David then pushed off him, was “a rival gang member,” thus proving David was still an active gang member willing to engage in violence for the benefit of a criminal street gang. Send him to the youth prison, the report said, like we told you to do the first time.

David was very goal-oriented when I met him. We had several discussions about his future, which he already had ideas about. He showed me papers one of the guards had given him which listed the prerequisites for a career he’d expressed some interest in and he ticked off how he planned to try to get there. He talked about his probation violation and how it was not representative of “who I am now or what I want to do with my life.”

Guards and others wrote letters of support for David. These talked — as I mentioned above — about his efforts to develop “pro-social skills.” In contrast to the Report and Recommendation, which noted his unwillingness to abandon his gang involvement, the letters proclaimed that he got along well with his peers, specifically including members of other (rival) gangs. David had even engaged in a little mentoring.

So at the disposition hearing after he admitted to the violation of probation, we had a lot of information to show that despite the violation, David was actually benefiting from the rehabilitation program. I argued that he should therefore not be sent to DJJ. I told the judge that his initial decision was the right one and the evidence of his behavior afterwards, notwithstanding the incident that had brought us back before him, was proof of that.

The court agreed. DJJ, the judge felt, was inappropriate before and inappropriate now. The judge had gone so far as to pull “an unofficial transcript” of the prior disposition hearing and made note that he’d told David he did not expect him to be perfect, but he did expect him to try. He knew, based on what he’d read about David, that it was going to be difficult. He had decided to give him a chance anyway. And he did not regret his decision. Nor did he now think that David needed to go to DJJ.

“What about my program,” David whispered to me. “Can we ask him to put me back into the program?”

But as the judge went on to explain, “There has to be accountability. You broke the rules. You should have let the guards handle this.”

David was not sentenced to DJJ. Instead, he received one year of local time. One year to live in the pod where he will receive the normal amount of rehabilitative assistance. Which is to say he will mostly receive nothing, but incarceration.

And the program that had helped him turn things around so well? Accountability required that David be punished by not allowing him to participate in the program.

Essentially, he’s on his own.

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