Copyright 1994 Bergen Record Corp.
'KIDDIE COURTS' GET NO RESPECT
NOVICE JUDGES IN HAND-ME-DOWN HALLS OF JUSTICEBy CHRISTOPHER KILBOURNE
They're called "kiddie courts," a nickname that rankles court officials but speaks volumes about New Jersey's halls of juvenile justice.
The unflattering label describes much more than the under-18 defendants. It refers to wet-behind-the-ears prosecutors and public defenders sent to cut their litigating teeth on matters seen as less important than adult criminal cases.
It describes the often dilapidated, hand-me-down courtrooms and cramped offices deemed unfit for civil and criminal cases.
And it refers to the disproportionate number of novice judges toiling in a system that compels them to hand out "cookie cutter" dispositions as a result of astronomical caseloads, inadequate training and support staff, and the Legislature's failure to provide alternatives to probation or incarceration for juvenile offenders.
"We are asking people to fight a war who haven't been through basic training, and we are asking them to do it without weapons," said B. Thomas Leahy, a former president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges who retired in 1991 after 22 years on the New Jersey bench.
The result: rapid-fire hearings that end with most convicted juveniles either being placed on probation or having the charges against them dropped, provided they stay out of trouble for a year. More than 12,000 convicted kids -- three of every five delinquents -- are under probation supervision. Relatively few receive the treatment and rehabilitation the system is supposed to provide. Both victims and witnesses are likely to come away dazed and disappointed.
"The whole thing was just a nightmare," said Tom, whose 19-year-old stepson suffered a a near-fatal stab wound in the spring. "For me, the trial was almost worse than the stabbing itself."
Tom and his wife, Michelle, who asked that their real names not be used, were upset by much more than just the one-year probation meted out to their stepson's 16-year-old assailant after a three-day trial in Bergen County juvenile court. The inexperience of the prosecutor and the makeshift courtroom made the trial seem "almost like a farce," Michelle said.
"I can't think of a single positive thing to say about the whole system," Tom said.
What makes such comments all the more grating to juvenile justice officials are the 10 years of major studies and changes designed to raise the quality and stature of the state's juvenile, matrimonial, and domestic courts.
In 1984, a constitutional amendment merged those courts into a family division and put them on the same footing as civil and criminal courts. The move coincided with the adoption of a new Code of Juvenile Justice that cracked down on serious offenders and authorized an array of programs to treat and rehabilitate lesser offenders.
Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz stressed the importance of the new family court and the need to make it "the great court we all want it to be."
Today, the system is nearing the end of a "period of a lot of studies" aimed at laying out a basic vision for the family division and identifying the needs and problems of the different courts, said Robert Lipscher, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Martin "Ty" Hodanish, director of the state Juvenile Delinquency Commission, sees the juvenile courts "evolving, and evolving in some very healthy ways."
But reformers complain that changes in the juvenile courts are moving at a glacial pace. Meanwhile, they say, kids' lives are being thrown away in an obviously flawed system while proposals gather dust, new studies are launched, and problems worsen.
The juvenile court's uphill battle for resources and respect is partly explained by its history. The court was created not by the state constitution, but through the Legislature's authority to establish "courts of inferior jurisdiction." That inferiority complex has been passed down from the original 1903 version of the juvenile court.
"In the past, most everything and everyone that were assigned to what is now the Family Division were assigned because they were the least experienced, had the least influence, were the least important, and knew the least," Wilentz wrote in 1989, adding, "Within the judiciary, the status of the family court is dramatically changing."
But Wilentz's optimism was at odds with the findings of the Pathfinders Committee Report to which he was responding.
"The unfortunate tradition continues with the assignment of newly appointed judges, assistant prosecutors, public defenders, and probation officers to the Family Part," the committee of judges reported. "They are led to believe that they can be promoted to Civil or Criminal once they have learned the ropes in the Family Part."
Today, high-ranking judges say the tradition of using the juvenile court as a training ground has largely ended, thanks in part to a policy that rotates first-term judges through the Family Part. But others say that most judges still spend only a year or two in juvenile court, leaving when they have begun to learn the ropes.
"Juvenile justice is a stepchild in the Prosecutor's Office," said Union County Prosecutor Andrew K. Ruotolo Jr.
That view seemed true as well in Bergen County's juvenile court, where the most senior of four assistant prosecutors handling the daily workload over the summer had been on the job for all of nine months.
And none of the four judges who have presided over Bergen's juvenile court over the past two years had more than two years' experience on the bench before assuming that post.
One reason judges and lawyers tend to flee the family division is its difficult blend of law and social work. Most have had little or no prior training in family law, and they know that the field is looked down upon by many of their colleagues practicing in civil and criminal courts.
The family courts have been described as "the product of an illicit relationship between the law and social sciences, where neither party wishes to acknowledge the progeny," the Pathfinders Committee noted.
Unlike adult criminal courts, where the focus is on punishment andproportionality, juvenile courts stress rehabilitation and individualized treatment, tempered by concern for public safety. But the goal of carefully tailoring justice to each child is undermined by the enormous caseloads heaped upon judges and lawyers in the juvenile system.
In fiscal year 1993, there were 5,046 cases filed per juvenile judge in New Jersey, compared with 442 new filings for each criminal court judge and 1,183 filings per civil court judge.
About 45 percent of all juvenile cases are diverted from court for resolution by social and quasi-legal agencies. Even excluding those cases, the 2,775 filings per juvenile judge was still six times higher than the caseload of criminal judges and 2.3 times higher than the filings for civil judges.
There is an unavoidable "apples and oranges" aspect to comparing juvenile court caseloads with the workload of other courts. There are no jury trials in juvenile court, and many cases are resolved through informal hearings because they involve minor infractions with no risk of incarceration.
But anything the juvenile courts lack in complexity is more than made up for in quantity. Juvenile judges report that on any given day they are likely to have 20 to 60 matters docketed on their calendars. A judge who handles 30 matters during a typical court day can devote an average of only 14 minutes to each case. And that doesn't sit well with defense lawyers.
"It's absolutely insane to think that a judge can give due consideration to all of the factors that the juvenile code spells out if the entire transaction takes place in less time than a coffee break," said James Louis, a deputy public defender who worked in the juvenile division for 18 years.
Juvenile judges are well aware that their decisions may mean the difference between a juvenile turning his or her life around or becoming a career criminal.
"The thing is, you get so busy you don't get that much time to work with an individual kid," said Essex County Superior Court Judge Conrad N. Koch. "We just see the files. And I don't see the files before going out on the bench."
Despite the brevity of the hearings, the average length of a juvenile case, from filing to termination, rose to 51 days in 1993. That is more than two weeks longer than the average in 1989. Experts say that the duration of kids' involvement with the justice system is crucial because they are in a particularly impressionable period.
" 'Justice delayed is justice denied' has its greatest impact in the family court," the Pathfinders Committee said. "When court systems postpone and delay dispositions of their cases, the children, who are held in limbo, present aggravated and substantially more serious problems than at the beginning of the dispute."
Adding to a difficult situation are the decrepit and inadequate courtrooms, offices, and waiting areas of some juvenile courts, particularly in the most densely populated counties.
A judicial panel described them as "appalling" in 1989, and things have not improved much. Samuel Conti, the acting assistant director of the family division, said the conditions of some juvenile courts are still "deplorable." Louis called them "dreadful."
"Conditions are crowded and loud with a crazed atmosphere," the state Supreme Court Task Force on Minority Concerns reported in 1992. "Litigants are turned off by the experience."
The lack of separate waiting areas and conference rooms for juvenile courts in counties such as Bergen and Essex means that victims, defendants, and witnesses share a common area. "Persons seeking the court's help are often at risk of bodily harm," the judicial panel said.
"It was very intimidating," Michelle said, describing the small rotunda where she and Tom waited for the trial of the youth who stabbed their stepson. "There were like 20 of them and only four of us. It was very uncomfortable."
An elderly witness in another case also was unnerved by Bergen County's juvenile court setup. He flatly refused a deputy's request that he leave an area reserved for attorneys and court staff and go back to the waiting area. "The kid's grandfather keeps coming over and threatening to beat me up," he said.
When a smoke bomb was set off in the halls outside Union County's juvenile courts this summer, workers barely took notice before returning to their heavy dockets. The prankster got away.
Such incidents and conditions "undermine public respect for the court," the 1989 Judicial Conference report said.
But the judiciary is limited in its ability to remedy the courts' physical failings because courthouses are owned by the counties, which are responsible for their upkeep and expansion. Court officials have urged family division judges to bring substandard conditions to the attention of county officials and to work with them to improve the situation.
The extraordinary caseloads and poor facilities are only the most visible of the barriers confronting juvenile judges in their mission to rehabilitate young offenders. One of the more pressing problems is the serious shortage of support staff, particularly in the state's most urban counties, said Camden County Superior Court Judge Robert W. Page, chairman of the Pathfinders Committee that sets the course for family courts.
The number and training of court workers is crucial because they can dispose of some matters themselves and expedite others, freeing overburdened judges for the most important cases and helping more kids.
The training provided to new juvenile judges has been increased, but it is not nearly enough, experts said. "It used to be three or four hours," Page said. "Now it's three or four days." Opportunities for further training and seminars are limited by the judges' heavy caseloads, he said.
Judges also are hampered in many cases by inadequate information about the juveniles who come before them. Both the 1989 Judicial Conference and the Pathfinders Committee recommended that a predisposition report be prepared for judges in every case where a juvenile is found guilty.
In practice, however, the reports -- containing information about the juvenile's family, schooling, and record -- are rarely provided unless a judge is considering sentencing the juvenile to a correctional facility or other out-of-home placement.
Some judges and court officials say compiling reports for every delinquent is unrealistic and unnecessary. "In no county do we have the staffing levels to meet that standard," Conti said.
Waiting for Bigfoot
An even larger obstacle for juvenile judges is their continued lack of sentencing options, despite the array of alternatives authorized 10 years ago.
Judges say the problem is often aggravated by the failure of the Division of Youth and Family Services to act promptly, if at all, in finding placements for juveniles.
In 1992, Superior Court Judge Rudolph N. Hawkins Jr. went so far as to jail a worker for the Union County Division of Youth and Family Services for not complying with his order to find a placement for a delinquent youth by the end of the day.
Superior Court Judge Carmen A. Ferrante vented his frustration on more than one occasion in Passaic County juvenile court last summer. "I'll make the call myself," he told one defendant. "I'll do DYFS' work."
That same day, he told another defendant, "I don't think that there is anything more that DYFS can do in light of the fact that it would take two or three months before they do anything, if we're lucky."
Two weeks later in Bergen County's juvenile court, Superior Court Judge Gerald C. Escala observed, "Waiting for a placement is like waiting for a vision of Bigfoot."
In too many cases, judges say, their choices boil down to probation or the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe Township, near Jamesburg.
"Jamesburg is, in my opinion, not an answer to anything," Page said. "I don't know how the courts can change behavior if all we have is Jamesburg."