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Positive Power: Exercising Judicial Leadership to Prevent Court Involvement and Incarceration of Non-Delinquent Youth

Published Jul 17, 2012, Coalition for Juvenile Justice

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Juvenile and family court judges play a critical role in the lives of youth and families who come into contact with the courts.  When you spend time with juvenile judges or their client families, you generally hear of lives turned around, children who are sheltered and supported, lives improved and in some cases lives saved; you will learn about the high level of dedication to children, youth, their families and communities that juvenile and family court judges hold at the core of their practice.  Yet, judges and other officers of the court may also be called upon to intervene in the lives of children and families even when their experience and evidence tell them that judicial intervention may make matters worse. 

Changes in law and in the expectations of parents and the public increasingly press judges and juvenile courts to address a range of issues that did not fall within the purview of the delinquency court in the past:  family disruption and dysfunction, children acting out in school and children running from home or placement for reasons of fear or emotional need.  At the same time, judges and courts face complex challenges as a result of laws that allow youth, by virtue of their minor status, to be charged in juvenile court for “status offenses,” i.e., actions that are not illegal at the age of adulthood, including curfew violations, possession of alcohol and tobacco, running away and truancy.  All too often the court’s involvement in the lives of such youth and families does not yield positive outcomes, particularly when youth charged with status offenses have their liberty restricted lives disrupted by incarceration.