The Juvenile Justice Initiative at Philanthropy New York: Closing Remarks from Judge Judith S. Kaye

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Juvenile Justice Initiative at Philanthropy New York is philanthropy’s response to the growing momentum for systems reform in New York State and New York City. Its long-term goal is to ensure an organized and timely response by philanthropy to reduce the flow of children and youth into the juvenile justice system, and to reorient the system from a correctional to a youth-development and therapeutic model.

On June 14, 2010, Philanthropy New York held the first of a series of sessions designed to provide a forum for New York City foundations and donors to share information and develop an informed understanding of where their own funding priorities intersect with the continuum of reform efforts. The session’s closing remarks were delivered by The Honorable Judith S. Kaye, who served as Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals for 15 years until her retirement in 2008. We are pleased to share them here on Smart Assets.

Forgive me, please, if I begin by talking about myself—my nearly 50 years as a lawyer and more than a quarter-century as a judge and New York’s Chief Judge. That’s three separate roles I have been privileged to hold, as a lawyer, then a judge of New York State’s high court (the Court of Appeals), and then Chief Judge of the State of New York. But I want to be sure you understand that when I speak of 50 and then 25 years in office, that’s not a total of 75 years—there was a bit of overlap there.

Even so, by any measure, it was a long and much-loved entanglement with our justice system, which I hope will continue far into the future. Do not for a minute be led astray by the word “retired” after my name in your program. “Ret.” stands only for “retitled,” “retooled,” and ready to contribute—especially in the area of juvenile justice.

I began my lawyer years steeped in the delights of commercial litigation—mergers gone bad, contracts challenged, businesses imperiled; all quite fascinating as you might imagine, especially for a young woman back in the 1960s. But somewhere along the way I found my true self, and now refer to those early days as my “wasted youth.”

What I encountered during my own cherished years in the courts was eye-opening and heart-rending—the genuinely wasted youths, luckless, unfortunate kids growing up in our courts and agencies, abandoned in one way or another, shuffled from place to place, school to school, no one to encourage them, mentor them, no one to teach them to tie a tie, or obtain birth certificates, citizenship papers, social security cards, or school supplies. That’s when I met so many of you—my heroes—people for whom wasted youths, even a single one, are intolerable.

When we were building a new Family Court in Queens some years ago, the architect excitedly explained to me that he had carefully researched the operation of family courts and concluded that design of a family court properly begins with large, comfortable public waiting areas, because the dockets are so massive and the waits necessarily so long. How sad! And indeed the court’s waiting areas are beautiful, and I might add fully utilized despite the best efforts of judges and court personnel—talk about heroes—to deal with their staggering caseloads.

And if the filled court waiting areas are not nightmarish enough, just take a look at the grim statistics, the court statistics and statistics beyond the courts. Today the rate of incarceration in the United States is several times higher than other western nations, heavily concentrated on 20-30-year-old minority men—now, more and more young women too. And more young teenage pregnancies, the cycle starting anew. This is America?

We know that the average annual cost to incarcerate a person is about three times what we spend educating a child. We know that close to a third of all kids suspended from school a few times before the spring of their second year of high school simply drop out; we know that a majority of state prisoners are high school dropouts; we know that about half of all inmates have children, and some are even the sole custodial parent. That’s a lot of broken families and devastated children. It’s what the New York Times referred to as “the incarceration generation.” I repeat: This is America?

Once a leader in juvenile justice, today the United States is almost Third World in its punitive approach to youth crime. And by youth crime, by the way, I refer not just to armed robberies but also to school scuffles, vandalism (like writing on desks), petty larceny, and similar adolescent behavior that can earn a first-time offender removal from school, friends, and family, and time in one of our facilities recently condemned by the Department of Justice and others.

And by the way, these commitments are not only expensive, they are also overwhelmingly ineffective. We know that incarceration more often leads not to rehabilitation but to recidivism. In fact, we know more about adolescent behavior and adolescent brain development today than ever before—about juveniles’ impulsiveness, difficulty thinking in terms of long-term benefits, and reluctance to trust adults. Here I am drawing on Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, the juvenile life without parole case decided only weeks ago. We know the science—it’s voluminous. We’re just not using it intelligently, constructively, to deal with adolescent behavior and misbehavior.

Shame on us. Shame on us for doing this to our kids, for greasing the downward spiral of their lives. Shame on us for doing this to ourselves, and to our nation’s most precious resource. We, after all, depend on the strength of the next generations for our future in this rapidly changing, challenging world.

How good it is that the secret is out today—that from every quarter, the United States Department of Justice, our Governor, our Mayor, our Chief Judge, our Commissioners, the popular press—there are calls for justice for juveniles. “Real Justice for Juveniles” was the Times editorial headline last week, and momentum at long last is starting to build for systemic reform. Indeed, it is fair to say that there is today a clamor for change. This is the moment, and we must seize the moment.

Of course, none of this is news to any of you gathered here today. It’s what brought you here. But I think there is a virtue in revisiting the grim statistics, even at the close of an extraordinary session like this, where we have heard from the people who know best about the problems, have great ideas for solutions, and are committed to implementing them. Especially from my judge-life I learned the value of circling and then recircling around a problem, again and again. It’s what I called “walking around the statue,” or “turning the prism” until it catches light—new insights for resolving intransigent problems. And that is what we have done from breakfast through lunch with plenty of food for thought, and action, in between. We have turned the prism, and yes, we have new insights and new energy.

We know what we have to do, don’t we? We need to reroute the deadly “cradle to prison,” or “school to prison,” or “placement to prison” pipeline. We need to prevent juvenile delinquency, to keep kids out of the justice system. Courts are not a good place for kids to grow up in. We need to find ways to keep kids in their homes and in their schools, with their families and friends. And we need to provide them with services in their communities so they are able to flourish. We need to create a host of meaningful interventions, off-ramps, that will hold young people accountable for their behavior, but simultaneously we must offer them the structure, support, and positive relationships with adults that they need so they can hold their heads up and nurture their dreams.

I don’t have a comprehensive list of interventions and off-ramps—if I did, I surely would not have waited until now to reveal it. But what I do know, what we all know, is that we must deal with kids’ issues long before they reach the stage of suspension, expulsion, and court referral. There are so many good ideas, good ways to intervene early. And that includes good ideas from the courts—another voice that should be heard.

Just now my own thoughts center on schools, education, and school-justice partnerships to prevent juvenile delinquency. I am especially interested in school-based youth courts, where peers instead of police or judges can intervene early. Youth courts train teenagers to serve as judges, jurors, and attorneys, teaching them about our justice system. They then handle real-life scrapes with the law committed by their schoolmates—like the school scuffles—and they administer meaningful sanctions, like community service and behavioral modification classes. They can involve the private bar as mentors to see that kids stay on the right track.

We’ve heard lots of great ideas today. What we do know for sure is that we need to be in this together, coordinately and cooperatively—government, advocates, the private sector, and philanthropy. And we know that the time for action is now.

I’ve saved an article I ran across a year or more ago describing one foundation’s nationwide network on adolescent development and juvenile justice that began some time ago in four states that were carefully chosen as pivotal partners—sadly and significantly, not including New York. So often that happens. The foundation chose those four other states because of their “prominence, diversity, and readiness for change” (that’s a quote), meaning their openness and readiness to work across lines to build and achieve readily replicable, effective solutions. Why does this keep happening to us?

It has for a long time seemed to me that we do a lot of visiting to other states—like Missouri, and now Michigan. How many trips have we made to see what others are doing? We’ve heard today about school-justice partnerships in Alabama and Georgia, and initiatives in Chicago, Denver, and Philadelphia. They all have ideas and programs we are watching. Why not New York? We certainly are “prominent” and thankfully we are diverse. Clearly today we have to remain open to and ready for comprehensive innovation and change. No closed doors, no pushing people or ideas away. This is just too important. And it’s not New York tourism I have in mind—it’s our humanity, rationality, sanity. This is the time and the place for dramatic change. I know this is true. So do you. We have no better evidence than the gathering here today!

Remember Field of Dreams? “Build it and they will come.” That is what we have to do. In New York. It is in our hands, all of us working together, to build the partnerships, the interventions, the off-ramps from disaster, so that the dreams of our children and the dreams of our nation can be fulfilled.

Judith S. Kaye served as Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals (which is the State Judiciary’s highest office) for 15 years until her retirement in 2008, longer than any other Chief Judge in New York’s history. Judge Kaye was also the first woman ever to serve as Chief Judge. She first was appointed in 1983 by Gov. Mario Cuomo as an associate judge of the Court of Appeals, becoming the first woman ever to serve on New York’s highest court. She gained a national reputation for both her groundbreaking decisions and her innovative reforms of the New York court system, and wrote notable decisions on adoption rights for gay couples and the death penalty. Judge Kaye is the author of numerous publications, including articles on legal process, state constitutional law, women in law, professional ethics, and problem-solving courts. She recently authored “Education Counts: Turning Crisis Into Opportunity for Adolescents,” published in the Juvenile and Family Court Journal.

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