Judge Byrne ’87 says innovations are making a difference in juvenile justice

State District Judge Darlene Byrne, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, discusses new programs and policies she has instituted in her court.

Sept. 29, 2015 - A keynote speaker at the 14th Annual Zealous Advocacy Conference held last Friday and Saturday at the University of Houston Law Center told juvenile justice advocates that thinking outside the box is making a profound difference in the lives of delinquent and at risk youth.

Judge Darlene Byrne, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, a UHLC alumna and Judge of the 126th Judicial District Court in Travis County, outlined several steps taken in her courtroom that have led to more positive outcomes for “crossover” youth, those caught in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Among the initiatives are a “one judge, one family” approach in which the same judge hears all matters involving a child and his/her family whether the issues unfold all at once or over the course of years. In addition, her court utilizes mediation; early attorney appointments; a family drug treatment program; and makes a concerted effort to place children with a relative as opposed to a foster home through a “family search and engagement” process. Byrne’s court also just launched a pet therapy program in which kids can receive emotional support from the stress of a day in court by visiting with a dog in the hallways.

“Being innovative is how we do business,” said Byrne. “And the innovations are saving time, saving money, and leading to better outcomes.”

Byrne was introduced by UHLC Dean Leonard M. Baynes who noted that “Judge Byrne continues to change the world – one child at a time.”

The event, “The Intersection of Race, Gender, Adolescent Development, and Juvenile Justice,” was sponsored by the Center for Children, Law & Policy and the Southwest Juvenile Defender Center.  The CLE training conference is designed to help juvenile public defense attorneys develop their tools and understanding of their young clients and the justice system.

In a session on adolescent development, Pamela Vickrey of the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys urged advocates to be mindful of how they relate to their young clients. Among her recommendations were to avoid jargon, ask simple questions, and to remember to “take into account you are dealing with a kid.”

Vickery also noted that, “The majority of kids we see in court are actually there for typical adolescent behavior. It may not be behavior that we approve of, but it is not unusual for their developmental stage.”

State Rep. Gene Wu of District 137 gave a legislative update on new laws affecting youth, including HB 2398 which decriminalized truancy, SB 1630 which encouraged youth in confinement facilities to be kept closer to home, and SB 107 which ended “zero tolerance.”  Previously, students who committed certain serious acts were automatically expelled from schools, but the new law allows for discretion on the part of educators looking at extenuating circumstances.

State representative and UHLC alum Armando Walle ‘14 of District 140 said that juvenile justice is an issue he is passionate about. He gave a call to action to juvenile justice advocates.

“My message is that you need to get involved. As advocates, go testify during committee hearings,” Walle said.

UHLC Professor Ellen Marrus, director of the Center for Children Law & Policy, and Professor Malikah Marrus of Hood College gave a talk on girls and juvenile justice. They mentioned certain risk factors that are most often seen with female youth who enter the system, including sexual abuse, first generation girls in the United States, and typical adolescent behavior. They also touched upon strategies to improve outcomes, including gender bias awareness, relationship building and improved communication between defense attorneys and their female clients, and more privacy for girls in detention facilities.

The Friday afternoon session closed with a judicial panel on working with crossover youth featuring Judge Michael Schneider of the 315th District Court, Judge Katrina Griffith, Child Protection and Custody Family Court of Harris County, and Dr. Matthew Shelton, of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

On Saturday, Professor Geoff Ward of the University of California, Irvine, was the keynote speaker focusing on racial violence, transgenerational trauma, and legal advocacy in juvenile justice.

“There is no doubt that racial inequality in juvenile justice will leave its marks on generations to come,” said Ward. “Not only should you be advocates for juvenile justice cases today, but also for those cases that were previously unjust.”

UHLC Professor Ellen Marrus and Nadia Seeraton of the National Juvenile Defender Center led a discussion on implicit bias and raising race in juvenile cases.

“We all have some form of implicit bias,” Marrus said. “We need to be aware of our own biases and those of the other actors in the system. It is imperative that defenders bring these issues up directly in their cases and in policy discussions about the juvenile justice system.” Marrus, along with Chris Phillis, director of the Maricopa County Public Advocate Office, led discussions that focused on the ethical rules and standards for juvenile defense that have been promulgated by the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Dean Alan Dettlaff of the UH Graduate College of Social Work gave opening remarks for a panel discussion on using social workers to build cases with Professor Malikah Marrus, Sariah Donnahoo, a forensic social worker with Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, and Pamela Vickrey.

David Shapiro, an assistant public defender in Baltimore, also talked about his efforts to lead a national movement to end the automatic shackling of juveniles in court.

“Indiscriminate shackling does not protect the public. Shackling makes kids feel more like criminals. Keep this idea in mind,” he said.

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