<< Doing Time

By Hassan Nicholas, 18
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When I set out to interview two attorneys who work in the juvenile justice system, I expected them to be hardened. Teens are troublemakers, we have no conscience, we do whatever we want to do—that’s the idea I thought they would have.
Instead, I found them to be understanding of teens. They know how we think, and they know that even though some teens commit crimes, not all teens are bad.

Both Rebecca Noblin, deputy district attorney, and Robert Johnson, deputy public defender, raised serious questions about the juvenile system. The system works for only a few, they said, although they had different reasons for saying so. Teens are supposed to be "rehabilitated" but instead they usually just get locked up.

Noblin described one of her cases, a boy who was severely abused and neglected by his mother. After being placed in a foster family, he hit his foster father and wouldn’t listen to him. The father called the cops and had him put in Juvenile Hall. He’s the kind of kid, she said, who really needs help and should not be in jail for being angry and defiant.

"For a small number of kids, maybe 15 percent, the juvenile justice system is perfect because it can shake them up, give them a taste of what it’s like to go into criminal activity. But for the vast majority of kids, 75 percent, they would not be here but for the fact that they come from really screwed up backgrounds, totally dysfunctional parents with no interest in their kids. If you took these kids and put them into a normal home, the system would work," said Noblin. The remaining 10 percent are "bad seeds," she said—kids who would probably misbehave no matter where they were, and who need to be controlled.

"The system is better than nothing—but is it working perfectly? No. I don’t blame the court system for that. We work closely with the dependency court. The court tries to be mommy and daddy—but it’s not the same," said Noblin.

Public defender Robert Johnson, who said he has more than 250 cases a month, agreed with Noblin that the majority of the kids he deals with come from broken homes. He described seeing patterns when the same kid would keep breaking the law, and he might also see other members of the family entering the system.

"A 15-year-old kid comes to juvenile court and then two years later, his 11-year-old brother. It’s not necessarily bad families. You might see two or three kids in the family doing good, and one doing bad," he said.

The system should help kids more

"I’ve think we’ve lost focus on what the juvenile system is supposed to do. They should be spending more money to educate or provide activities for kids. There should be more services," Johnson said. For example, he said if a kid wants to remove a tattoo, he might be on a waiting list for a year or more. And in the meantime, he’s still viewed as active in the gang.

Johnson further criticized two aspects of juvenile justice—trying teens as adults and making it harder for them to seal their records.

He said he feels strongly that teens should not be treated as adults. Johnson said teens are more likely to make stupid choices than adults are.

Johnson also felt strongly that prosecutors should not be the ones to make the decision on whether teens should be tried in adult court. Prop. 21 gives prosecutors that power, and although the provision is now being challenged in court, Johnson and many other legal experts believe it will be upheld. "If we will treat kids as adults, it shouldn’t be up to the prosecutors," Johnson commented.

He said that charges against teens can count as a strike once they become adults, which isn’t fair because teens are tried without a jury. Since the crimes teens commit may be used against them later on, teens should have a jury just as adults do, he argued.

Rebecca Noblin said that the Los Angeles district attorney’s office is not currently using its power to send minors to adult court. She added that some youth should be tried as adults, if they seem to be hard-core. For example she said a kid who had been a member of the Crips since age 12, at age 13 committed an armed robbery and was sent to camp, at 14 was charged with rape and at 15 arrested for an assault with a gun and five car jackings, should be sent to adult court. Robert Johnson however, expressed a more lenient view. In his opinion that kid should stay in juvenile court. "Kids act more impulsively then adults. Kids aren’t responsible enough."

Johnson also expressed anger that it is hard for a teen convicted of a crime to "seal" his records when he turns 18. That means one mistake can affect youth the rest of their lives, said Johnson.
"Kids come back and really change their lives. This kid came from the Phillippines when he was 13. He committed a robbery. Now he’s a straight-A student in college, working full-time, but he can’t become a citizen or start a career because of the charge on his record."