From a Lawyer’s View: The Importance of Creativity in the Representation of Juveniles at Disposition

Happy Friday Readers! No Week in Review this week, but please keep reading for our 2nd installment in our new series: “A Lawyer’s View.”

The Importance of Creativity in the Representation of Juveniles at Disposition: Advocating for Alternative Dispositions

Dispositional hearings often feel a bit like the players are on the scene of the Bill Murray movie “Ground Hog Day.” The juvenile court counselor presents his or her recommendations to the court. The attorney has no questions but desires to be heard. The attorney says a few nice things about his or her client. The Court makes findings, and then adopts the recommendations of the court counselor. This scene is repeated regularly every day in delinquency court.

Although much of the time the recommendations of the juvenile court counselor are well-suited to address the juvenile’s rehabilitative and treatment needs, it is the duty of the juvenile’s attorney to make recommendations for alternative solutions when appropriate. Often, that necessitates a bit of creativity on the part of the attorney for the juvenile.

N.C.G.S. §7B-2506 provides a comprehensive list of dispositional alternatives available to the court for delinquent juveniles. These dispositional alternatives are affected by the dispositional limits for each class of offense and the delinquency history level of the juvenile. (See N.C.G.S. §7B-2506-2508)

The first step to making creative suggestions to the court regarding the dispositional alternatives is for a juvenile’s attorney to make themselves knowledgeable about the services available in their community. Attorneys who represent juveniles in delinquency cases should also get to know their clients, and the client’s parents in order to determine the juvenile’s rehabilitative and treatment needs.

Oftentimes, parents of the juvenile are well-equipped to ensure that the juvenile’s needs are being met. Attorneys should meet with their clients ahead of the scheduled court date and make inquiry of the parents regarding the needs of the juveniles, and what provisions can be made prior to the disposition to show the Court that the parents can meet these rehabilitative and treatment needs. Parents can arrange for therapy, substance abuse treatment, private community service, or any number of other services. Parents can implement in-home punishments such as a curfew, attend school regularly, remain on good behavior, not associate with anyone deemed inappropriate by the parent, or be at any place deemed inappropriate by the parent. These are typical conditions of a juvenile’s probation that do not necessarily require supervision by a juvenile court counselor. The juvenile’s attorney should prepare to inform the court regarding the conditions put in place by the juvenile’s parents, the parents’ plans for implementation, and provide examples of how the parents’ plans are being carried out in the home.

When an appropriate plan can be implemented by a juvenile’s parents, the juvenile’s attorney can ask the court to dismiss the disposition, or to place conditions on the juvenile under the parents’ supervision. Remember not all juveniles who are adjudicated delinquent require the supervision of a juvenile court counselor to address their rehabilitative and treatment needs. Attorneys should not rely on the juvenile court counselor’s court report to determine what those rehabilitative and treatment needs are. Attorneys should be prepared at disposition to advise the court regarding the needs of the juvenile and to make recommendations regarding the best way to address those needs.

Attorneys can get too comfortable with the “groundhog effect,” walking into court on the disposition court date, reading the recommendations of the juvenile court counselor, and not coming prepared to make their own recommendations. Oftentimes, this is because they assume that the judges are also on autopilot and reflexively adopt those recommendations. Judges look to the juvenile court counselor, the assistant district attorney, and the attorney for the juvenile to inform them of the juvenile’s rehabilitative and treatment needs and to make suggestions tailored to address these needs. Taking a little time to educate yourself about resources available in the community and to inform yourself about the needs of the client will assist you with becoming more creative in your suggestions to the court, and in achieving a better outcome for your client.

Written by: Honorable Christine Underwood. Judge Underwood presides over district court in Judicial District 22A, which includes Alexander and Iredell counties. She has been on the bench since January 2009. Before that, Judge Underwood was in private practice. She held a contract with the State of North Carolina to represent juveniles in delinquency court. Her other areas of practice included parent representation in Abuse/Neglect/Dependency court, criminal law, and family law. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Appalachian State University in 1994 and received her Juris Doctor from Campbell University’s Normal Adrian Wiggins School of Law in 2004.

“The Improper Use of Electronic Monitors in Juvenile Court” by Guest Blogger Mitchell Feld

Mitch

You meet your new client for the first time for the first detention hearing as the child was detained on a low-level felony or misdemeanor.  The recommendation is for the child to be released on an electronic monitor.  Your client hears that and says that he/she is willing to get out of detention on an “ankle bracelet.”  The short-term victory is your client is happy because he/she got released and you look like the great lawyer who walked into court and got your client released.  However, did you truly do a service to your client and other children in juvenile court?

We have all been in the situation described above and accept the offered release conditions because it satisfies the wishes of your client.  However, how often do we ask if electronic monitoring is appropriate while still arguing for our client’s expressed interest to be released?  Electronic monitoring is a common release condition for adult court and by accepting it as a release condition for children in juvenile court in all situations mares the difference between juvenile and adult court.  What is amazing about the utilization of electronic monitoring in juvenile court is when it is used when it is not necessary and when it is not used when it is necessary.  There are a few situations that truly highlight these two types of scenarios and the rationale behind its appropriateness or lack thereof.

My office has had numerous children who are detained on misdemeanors or low-level felonies, they comply with curfew and rules put in place by the parent/guardian, they attend school daily, and they have a social history that is absent any red flags.  Court counselors frequently ask for a child to be released on electronic monitoring due to the serious nature of a child having a felony charge.  While one can appreciate that a felony is a serious offense, we must inquire about the virtue of an electronic monitor and whether this child is truly a danger to property or persons as is one of the criteria under N.C.G.S 7B-1903(b)(1).  Merely being charged with a felony does not mean a child is a danger to property or persons and making an argument against continued detention or release on electronic monitoring is a necessary argument.  Children that are charged with possession of drugs that rise to a low-level felony, possession of stolen goods merely because the child was given property from a B&E, or assault-based offenses are not necessarily appropriate for a monitor due to the lack of correlation between the charge and the need for 24/7 supervision.  Possession of a drug or property, while serious and concerning, does not mean that the person needs to be supervised at all times without other factors present.  If someone is charged with assault (either physical or sexual), an electronic monitor serves no purpose to prevent a future attack.  All a monitor would do in an assault situation is provide confirmation that a person was present should another attack occur, but would not actually prevent an attack.  While these situations can be concerning to a victim, judge, or prosecutor, we still need to balance the purpose of a monitor with the juvenile court-to-prison pipeline that is created by imposing adult court conditions on children.

While those situations are ones that are self-explanatory for when a monitor is not necessary, there are also situations when a monitor is refused when it can be appropriate for a child to be released.  My favorite situation that arises in court is when a court counselor said that child was denied for electronic monitoring because he/she has an AWOL history.  At that point I want to turn to the court counselor and do my best Biff impression from Back to the Future and say, “Hello, McFly!  Think, McFly, think!”  I have made the argument to judges that if a monitor is only used for children who comply with a curfew and we know where they are at all times, then what is the purpose of the monitor?  If children have a history of going AWOL, not following a curfew, or leaving school without permission, then a monitor can serve a purpose to ensure the child thinks twice before making that negative decision knowing big brother is watching at all times.  No one wants to see a child with an electronic device strapped to his/her ankle at all times, but if it serves as a behavior modification technique, causes the child to think twice about a decision, and stops the prior behaviors that led them to juvenile court, then the use of the device is appropriate.

There is also the situation when court stakeholders believe that because your client committed one breaking and entering, he/she committed all of them.  I have had numerous clients that, to their credit and honesty, will gladly tell you which crimes they committed and which ones they did not.  The monitor has been useful to show a judge and prosecutor that just because there was enough evidence for one case, does not justify bringing charges for another because the child’s monitor did not show his/her presence at the scene of another crime.  As stated above, I do not like to see a child on a monitor but there are times when its presence can be utilized to demonstrate your client’s innocence.

While juvenile court has been around for a number of years, in light of where it has come in the past 50 years since In re Gault, there are still a number of practices that are not juvenile court practices, but rather applied adult court practices.  While it is easy to accept those practices as that may be all we have, we must be diligent to challenge their utilization and appropriateness when they are not right for children.  When you believe you have nothing else to argue, it is easy to go back to N.C.G.S. 7B-1500 and argue that rehabilitation and constitutional rights for children are always at the heart of what juvenile court is about.  Children may be focused on the short-term win, but we need to be thinking about the long-term effects.  The arguments we make today will become best practices in the years to come.

Mitchell Feld is the Director of Children’s Defense at the Council for Children’s Rights representing children in delinquency and mental health commitment matters.  Mr. Feld obtained his undergraduate degree from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania in 2005 and his J.D. degree from the University of Miami School of Law in 2008.  Mr. Feld is a member of the North Carolina Bar and the Western District of North Carolina.  He has served as the Chair and Vice Chair of the Juvenile Law Section of the Mecklenburg County Bar and currently serves on the Mecklenburg County Bar Grievance Committee.  Mr. Feld has lectured at the local, state, and national level on juvenile case law, interviewing children, sex offenses and registration, motions practice, and delinquency advocacy.