Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996
The Current Status of the Juvenile Court
Judges are on the front line in dealing with some of society's most difficult problems. They need to be supported in their work, and they, in turn, need to be highly trained and motivated for their difficult responsibilities. Yet, as detailed in the article by Rubin, juvenile courts today vary greatly in jurisdiction, organization, staffing, resources, and facilities. For instance in some states, all juvenile court cases are heard by fully qualified judges, while in others, quasi-judicial officers known as referees or commissioners hear a large part of the juvenile court caseload. Typically, there is no required experience or training for juvenile court judges. This situation is particularly critical given that law school education and prior practice most often do not prepare a lawyer to handle cases involving juveniles. Most judges learn while on the job, but this valuable experience is lost in many jurisdictions where judges are assigned to the juvenile division for only a short period of time, for example, six months to one year. The lack of training and experience is particularly troublesome given the unique nature of juvenile court work. Handling cases involving children requires knowledge not only of statutory and case law but also of child development and of a community's system of social services and its educational and correctional institutions.
Other professionals working in the juvenile court, such as public defenders and prosecutors, often also lack the training and experience needed to work with children and their families. And even the experienced professionals may find it difficult to provide sufficient services because of the huge caseloads and limited staff resources. Newly hired prosecutors are frequently given the juvenile court as their first assignment. Defense attorneys often carry so many cases at one time that they cannot adequately prepare for each. A 1990 study of three courts found that district attorneys handled an average of 377 delinquency cases per year in one court and 725 delinquency cases per in these same courts handled an average of only 115 cases annually in one court, but 1,015 per year in a second, and 616 per year in the third.97 Caseloads such as these can render the legal representation of parties before the juvenile court insufficient.
As the article by Rubin discusses, juvenile courts also vary in their stature, resources, and organization. The juvenile court frequently operates as the "poor sister" in the local court system. Facilities, particularly in urban areas, are often grossly inadequate and not designed to meet the varied needs of the court and its clients.98
Of these distinctions, the most important is the stature of the juvenile court within the state court system. Although in most states the juvenile court is part of the court of general trial court jurisdiction, as are the adult criminal and civil courts, in some states (for example, Virginia) the juvenile court has a lower status. In these states, if a party who appeared before the court disagrees with its ruling, that party is automatically entitled, upon request, to a complete rehearing in a court of general jurisdiction.
Although many aspects of juvenile court operations need attention, significant progress could occur if state and local jurisdictions took action on the following three recommendations:
- Juvenile courts should be at the level of the highest trial court of general jurisdiction in each state.
Because nearly all juvenile courts are created by either state statute or judicial rule, such a change would require either legislation or rule making in a state. Judges, rather than referees or commissioners, should be the dominant judicial officers in this court. This is important to receive adequate funding and other resources for the court. Heightened court status also makes it easier to retain judges and to encourage them to be strong leaders in the community.49
- All judges and other judicial officers serving in a juvenile division or juvenile court should be required to have intensive and ongoing training not only in the statutory and case law governing delinquency, status offense, and dependency matters but also in child development, cultural factors, resources for families, the court's relationship with and duties toward social welfare agencies, and research findings regarding rehabilitative interventions.
- Juvenile court judges should serve in the juvenile court division for at least two to three years.
Judges need not make a lifetime commitment to serving on the juvenile court. However, rotations of only six months to one year unnecessarily prevent judges from being able to develop the experience and relationships necessary to make them effective in juvenile court.
Several states have already taken some of these steps. California, for example, makes judicial training available to all judges, including those serving on the juvenile bench. However, such training is not required. In addition, the California Rules of Court specify that "the presiding judge of the Superior Court should assign judges to the juvenile court to serve for a minimum of three years," a requirement that is being complied with in most counties in the state.99