Hometown: New Ipswich, NH
Major: American History
What did you enjoy most about the internship?
I really enjoyed getting to know everyone in the Juvenile Services Program. The staff consists of talented attorneys and law clerks who demonstrate a sincere diligence and desire to serve others. They taught me a lot about the field of juvenile justice and careers in public interest law.
What was the greatest challenge?
Often we did not receive notice of hearings until one or two days before the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services had scheduled them to take place. In addition, multiple hearings would be scheduled on the same day. For the investigators, these numerous impending deadlines meant that we needed to work quickly and attentively while contacting witnesses for our clients.
What was the greatest lesson you learned through your experience?
The greatest lesson that I learned from this internship is that a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective in juvenile rehabilitation. Each community has unique characteristics and therefore similar rehabilitative approaches perform inconsistently in different localities. Further, every juvenile faces a unique life situation. In order to be successful, the rehabilitative process must take these differences into account and adjust for the unique needs presented by each individual child.
How might the internship affect your career path?
Most of the work accomplished by JSP is clinical, as we assisted individual clients with their specific legal needs. This clinical work provided me with practical knowledge of the greater legal issues faced within the juvenile justice system. I now know that even if I pursue a career in legal work at the policy level, it is important to first have experience at the clinical level. This experience is critical to developing an accurate understanding of the issues involved in any legal field.
Newspapers often portray the world of juvenile delinquency in an obscure and unfavorable light. Reporters focus on sensational stories about juvenile crime and the wasteful spending at detention facilities. Many know the juvenile justice system only as the custodian of troublesome youths; however, unlike the adult system, the juvenile system is explicitly rehabilitative in its focus. In order to succeed at their goal of rehabilitation, state agencies must acknowledge and treat the individual needs of each juvenile. At my internship with the Juvenile Services Program (JSP) in the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, I worked to help ensure that juveniles' voices would be heard throughout the disposition period, which encompasses the court-mandated process that a youth must complete in response to a crime. The attorneys and law clerks in JSP provide juveniles with access to legal assistance and representation once they are behind the locked doors of detention facilities. In my role at JSP, I learned about the complex causes of delinquency and the importance of agencies that represent the interests of juveniles throughout their time in the justice system.
Those acquainted with juvenile justice issues are usually exposed only to the youths, their families and their attorneys. Frequently, juvenile public defenders oversee heavy caseloads and have a limited ability to represent clients post-adjudication (post-trial). Sometimes, families fail in their duty to assist in the rehabilitation process and instead are often the initial agents of delinquency. This can leave youths largely alone during the disposition stage. Fortunately for youth involved in the D.C. court system, the Juvenile Services Program exists to represent their interests beyond the adjudication process. JSP, which is a unique program that does not exist in other jurisdictions, manages offices located in each of the city's juvenile detention centers. Unlike their peers across the country, youths detained in D.C. have ready access to enthusiastic lawyers and law clerks who ensure that juveniles' rights are defended, their interests represented, and their versions of events communicated within the justice system.
JSP interns assist with investigations for post-adjudication hearings. The Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) holds a community status review hearing when a social worker accuses a juvenile who has been on parole of breaking the conditions of his or her parole. The severity of this violation could range from truancy to the acquisition of a new criminal charge. In such a hearing, a youth who has been in the community can be transferred to a higher level of detention. Therefore, this hearing can present weighty consequences for a youth that drastically alter not only his or her living environment, but also connections to family, access to education and associations with employers. The role of JSP in these hearings is to advocate on behalf of the juvenile alone. Often, this amounts to an effort to ensure that juveniles can benefit from services in the community when their situations do not warrant secure detention. This is important because detention can actually have damaging effects on low-risk youth. Secure detention alienates these youths from their families, schools and communities and acquaints them with other juvenile offenders from across the city. The secure detainment of a youth also requires the removal of a child's liberty, a measure that should not be undertaken unless absolutely necessary. When DYRS claims that a juvenile must be placed in secure detention to ensure the safety of the juvenile or the community, JSP challenges the claim and presents an argument for community status on behalf of its client.
Investigations frequently reveal the causes behind a client's delinquent status. By interviewing family members, mentors, counselors, teachers and employers during preparation for hearings, I was provided with a glimpse of the complicated life situations that can contribute to an early involvement with criminal activity. In some cases, parents had failed to provide their children with constructive boundaries or academic encouragement. In other cases, schools had failed to sufficiently provide for the special educational needs of children. In almost all cases, at least one traditional structural support had been missing in the child's life. Most children in the justice system had been heading down a path to delinquency long before committing their first crimes. In most of these cases, the provision of supplementary family and community supports for these children could deter them from criminal activity more effectively than detention.
It was frustrating to uncover these complex issues while lacking the ability to correct them. The role of JSP is to represent juveniles in hearings, not to fill the role of neglectful parents, communities or schools. At the end of the summer, however, we were provided with the opportunity to participate in focus groups conducted by the Juvenile Reentry Panel for D.C. These groups collected opinions from juveniles, parents and social workers about issues with the reentry process and ideas for improvement. This served as a great venue to compare the observations that we had made throughout the summer at JSP with the perspectives of the various stakeholders in the juvenile justice system.
My internship at JSP assured me of the need for flexibility within the juvenile rehabilitation process. Every child's situation is unique and therefore requires a unique solution. In some cases, the engagement of the family in the process is effective, but in others, it can be corrosive. Some juveniles require drug treatment while others require behavioral counseling. Some high-risk youths do require secure detention because they have proven to be a danger to themselves or their communities; however, most can benefit more from services in the community that can be provided at a lower cost. When services are mandated as part of a disposition for juvenile delinquency, state agencies need to make a strong effort to tailor rehabilitation plans toward the individual. A blanket approach is both wasteful and ineffective. All children in the juvenile justice system will eventually exit it. It is to society's benefit that they leave the system as well-prepared as possible to benefit from and contribute to the communities in which they live.