Thursday, July 26, 2012

Open juvenile court

This from the Courier-Journal:
So, two teenage boys admit to sexually assaulting a girl and circulating photos of the attack and who winds up in trouble?

Why, the victim of course — a 17-year-old Louisville girl who until Monday faced possible jail time for contempt of court.
Her offense?
Speaking out on Twitter about her case, in violation of the excessive secrecy that envelops Kentucky’s juvenile court system.
Lawyers for the boys had the sense this week to drop their ill-advised efforts to hold Savannah Dietrich in contempt of court after she went public with her dissatisfaction, including what she believed to be lenient treatment of the boys who await sentencing.
Now Kentucky needs to do what most states already have done and drop the rigid confidentiality laws that govern juvenile court proceedings.
Kentucky is one of only 11 states that bar any access to juvenile proceedings — the rest, including Indiana and Tennessee allow full or partial access, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Without such access, how is the public to know how the courts function and how effective they are at handling juvenile criminal cases? In this case, troubling questions have surfaced that demand answers.
For example, Miss Dietrich claims she had no say in the resolution of the case or the plea deal the Jefferson County Attorney’s office struck with the two young men. Is this true?
Who knows? Because of the confidentiality of records and closed court proceedings, we can’t tell and no one else involved is talking.
She also believes the proposed sentence is a “very, very light deal.”
Was it? Again, there’s no way to judge without access to the proceedings, an understanding of the offense and details of the sentence the teens are facing.
Efforts by the boys’ lawyers to keep a lid on the case clearly backfired.
After Courier-Journal reporter Jason Riley broke the story about the contempt proceedings, it went viral on websites and news outlets around the world, attracting many comments of outrage about Miss Dietrich’s treatment.
David Mejia, a lawyer for one of the boys, complained about the publicity, saying the confidentiality of juvenile court in part is meant to protect the victim.
No, it’s not, Mr. Mejia.
It’s about protecting the system.
The victim in this case came forward, agreeing to be identified, even though this newspaper and most news outlets routinely don’t identify sexual assault victims.
Kentucky needs to join most other states and open this secret system.


Anonymous said...

I am curious how this "opening" would impact FERPA expectations which schools function under. As a school administrator, I have often wished I could just post punishments on the front door so folks could see what resolution was taken as opposed to the usual misperception that nothing was done since I could not offer that information due to FERPA expectations. In the same token, I think folks need to come to recognize that an expectation of consistency of consequence is not going to occur if, like our judicial system, we evaluate each event and transgression based upon the unique and individual circumstances which occur. We need to remember that the folks we have placed in positions of enforcement and application do so not to ensure popular support of their decisions but to work toward fair responses to transgressions. It is my experience that most parents of transgressors seek latitude/compassion with the underlying belief that my consequence was too harsh. The agreived party usually seeks compensation and even revenge often time beyond what is merited or practical.

It is a difficult balance. I think the issue that bothers me with this case that under current parameters we have allowed someone to get away with what is inessense electronic vigilante justice with no consequence. Are we truly comfortable with allowing victim to take measures into their own hands when they "feel" that justice was not served in harsh enough fashion? Who bears responsibility when one of these minors ends up getting beat up or attacked themselves by some detached individual who feels he possesses some moral high ground to institute their own idea of justice?

Let the judicial system do its job.

Richard Day said...

I can certainly sympathize with your use of professional judgment to resolve disputes and change unproductive behavior in your students. I greatly prefer the judgment of professionals to (zero-tolerance (zero-thinking) policies. And, yes, it does produce results that appear to those not privy to the information to be uneven.

I tend toward transparency in government, so I'm sympathetic to the newspapers' effort to shine a little light on the juvenile justice system. It would still fall within some limits set by the court.

I'm not up-to-speed on the juvenile justice issue, but was struck by this story. Typically, it is the victim whose identity needs protection. H-L and C-J seem convinced that it is really "the system" (politicians and lawyers?) that is being protected from scrutiny in Kentucky, sometimes at the expense of citizens. Most other states have apparently found some middle ground.

I certainly agree that as a general rule, folks can't go around defying judges' orders...and if Dietrich got slapped on the wrist for it, I would understand. But sometimes people buck the system to make it better. I hope this is one of those cases.

I agree that we need to allow the justice system to work. But when it (or any other governmental function) needs fixin', I hope we are wise enough to fix it.