One of the first things they told us during the training for court-appointed juvenile cases was that we should never allow ourselves to become co-opted by the system.
My first reaction upon hearing this was: What the heck are they talking about?
My only previous experience with juvenile cases had been in Philadelphia, and it was not a good one. It wasn’t, for example, that you couldn’t get probation officers to return your phone call; it was that, because of overloaded phone mailboxes, you couldn’t leave a message to begin with.
By contrast, the system seems to work here in D.C., at least by comparison. The judges genuinely care about the juveniles and are willing to take whatever time is needed to try to arrive at the right outcome. Probation officers not only return their phone calls, they work with you and your client to help the juvenile succeed. I have yet to encounter a gung-ho, law-and-order type prosecutor you see in so many other places. And, based on much more limited experience, I have even been impressed with some of the personnel from the much-maligned Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS).
In other words, defense lawyers who complain about the system in D.C. – and, yes, there will always be problems — may not realize how good they have it.
The second and related piece of advice they gave us is that you can never forget your role as advocate for the client’s wishes. Assuming that the juvenile is not mentally incapacitated in some way, you are not to substitute your own conception of the client’s best interests for what the client tells you he or she wants. If the client tells you he or she wants to go home, that is the outcome you work to achieve.
Recently, I represented a client during a very emotional hearing to determine whether he would be committed to DYRS after he was found guilty of multiple offenses. While I have complained before about the “one court, one family” system in D.C. that puts the juvenile and his siblings in front of the same judge each time a new offense is charged, this time the system seemed to work to my client’s advantage. It meant that the judge clearly knew my client, his family, and his circumstances very well.
The mother stood in court and yelled at the judge. She felt disrespected. She left the courtroom and came back, and then sobbed quietly as the rest of us stood in respectful silence. Mom, said the teenager. Stop it. You are embarrassing me.
Take a moment to collect your thoughts, the judge told the mother. And then tell me everything you want to tell me. I will not interrupt you.
Although the outcome – transferring legal custody of the juvenile from the mother to DYRS – seemed inevitable, getting there was not an easy process for anyone. I also knew deep down that it was the right one, no matter how hard I worked as my client’s legal advocate to oppose it.
Some kids do fare better out of the home. I am a parent myself. I know how difficult it can be to raise children in even a two-parent household. Imagine living at well below poverty rate without any water or electricity in the home, with a mother who is dealing with her own mental health and addiction issues, shootings that happen regularly, drugs sold on the street corner, and a school system in which the teachers do far more discipline than education. In some cases, it is not a question of if the child will be picked up by the police; it is a question of when and how many times.
And when the middle-aged woman from a suburb in Maryland – a black June Cleaver — stood up before the court and talked gently and forthrightly about the foster home she could provide my client (the tree-lined neighborhood and yellow school bus, three steady meals, and his own room), I wanted this for my client. Even if I never said so.
There is a certain simplicity to the defense lawyer’s role in juvenile cases that I suppose you could find reassuring. Since the system only works when every player performs his or her assigned role, it means that you can pursue the client’s wishes without worrying about whether or not you are doing the right thing. The agonizing is left to the judge. Hopefully he arrives at the right decision. Even if that decision is not the one you argued for.[Disclaimer: I should note that, as always, the people I describe on this blog are composite characters, based on real people I have either represented or seen.]