I have a little speech I like to give to my juvenile clients. I tell them that, while I will be looking out for their legal interests as their lawyer, what happens to them pending trial or if found guilty of the offense will depend far more on what they do for themselves.
I then hold up four fingers and go through the four elements: Probation. Drugs. School. And then I deliberately conclude with: Home.
If you do well in all four areas, I tell them, I don’t care if the judge ultimately convicts you of a serious felony, you could still be going home. Likewise, if you do poorly in one or more of these areas, the judge could find you guilty of a minor misdemeanor – like shoplifting—and still commit you to custody until the time you turn 21.
Your probation officer should be your best friend. If you think of me as an extension of yourself (one with a law degree), you should think of the probation officer as the eyes and ears of the judge. In fact, think of the probation officer as the judge himself.
I will be saying nice things about you every time we appear in front of the judge; the prosecutor will sometimes say not so nice things. Who do you think the judge will listen to? He will listen to the probation officer.
This means that you need to make all your appointments. You need to meet curfew. You need to report to drug testing. Every time the probation officer says that you need to do something, that is exactly what you need to do.
Let’s hope that the drug test you took this morning comes back clean. But what is really important is how the tests come back after this point. If they keep coming back dirty, the judge is going to hold you until you can produce clean results. You might as well get started with those clean tests now.
You don’t have to get straight A’s. What you do need to do is go to every class, every day and on time. Be respectful toward the teachers. Don’t worry about the other kids.
Your mother or father need to say good things about you every time we appear in front of the judge. This means that you need to be respectful. You need to meet curfew and do your chores. You need to do everything else your parents ask you to do.
Then I hold up my fingers and ask them to repeat the four areas back to me. Although this might sound condescending, it is sometimes necessary. The juveniles have a lot going on at the time you first meet with them. They have just been arrested and spent the night in custody. You have got to make sure they have heard you.
The knock on juvenile cases from some of my colleagues is that representing juveniles often feels more like social work than the practice of law. It is true. But I enjoy it. Unlike the adult indigent defendants, the kids are still in that trusting phase. They listen to you. And sometimes, just sometimes, you feel you can make a difference.
“I got it, Mr. Koehler,” one of my clients tells me recently before a status hearing, weeks after I delivered my little lecture at our initial meeting. “Probation. Drugs. School. And if I do all of that right, then I’m home.” He holds up four fingers to make sure I get the connection. And then he repeats the four areas for me. Just in case I missed them the first time.