"No show" by parents can influence kids' jail time?

May 21, 2010

When it comes to justice, do white kids catch breaks that other kids don't?

I saw Mary Mitchell's column in the Sun-Times yesterday.‚  She wrote about the girl from Wilmette who's been charged with a serious hit-and- run accident. A total nightmare for everybody involved. Somehow the girl accused of the crime was able to skirt time in a Cook County Jail cell and was detained instead at the jail's hospital facility. A poor youth of color, or any youth without access to resources, might not have fared as well, Mitchell seems to say.

Of course, it isn't clear if there were other issues, such as health concerns, involved.

The driver, who's 18, is technically an adult according to Illinois law. That's why she was sent to Cook County Jail instead of the JTDC, which is essentially Cook County's jail for kids. Anybody who's ever walked into the juvenile detention center -- can sense that there's something funny going on. Something that doesn't smell like justice. Because there are hardly any white kids there. At all. That must mean that white kids don't break the law, right?

No, I don't think so. That's not what white kids self-report -- and it's not what anyone who lives around white kids, knows. When I ask around about how this actually happens (the experts call it disproportionate minority contact) people are hard-pressed to explain the causes.

It's complicated and convoluted, they tell me. And there are many subtle tributaries that flow into the overall river of inequity.

Here's a "tributary" I came across a few months ago. A subtle one. It's from the mouth of Rick Hutt, of the Cook County public defender's office.

We were talking about detention hearings, a proceeding that happens after a kid has been arrested and held overnight at the detention center. A judge has to decide if there's probable cause to think that the youth committed a crime and if there's an urgent need to hold the kid in custody until trial.

This detention hearing, by the way, happens at arraignment, when a kid is being charged. So the kid always has a lawyer there, as required by Illinois law. But parents may or may not show up for that hearing. And that may influence the judge's decision, Hutt says: 

 

HUTT: If a mother AND a father show up, that's 2 very big points in the kid's favor. Because most judges will ask the parents - " How's he doing at home? Does he go to school? Is he listening to you? "
Most judges are very aware that parents are pretty honest about this. "What if we gave you some assistance? What if we had him on home confinement or we put a probation officer for pre-trail services? In other words, what can we do to prop this kid up while he's in detention? "
Now sometimes the crime is serious enough, sometimes his background is serious, sometimes he has a history of arrest warrants, in other words he hasn't shown up to court. All of theses come into play to where the judge thinks it's urgent and it's immediate that this kid has to be detained.
When a kid comes in ALONE, like his mother is working, or his mother is taking care of kids.. (although you'd be surprised how many mothers will take an el and 3 buses and have 4 kids in their arms to make sure they're there for their son... I really have a lot of respect for the mothers who do that...They don't want their son in detention ..)
But those times when the kid is alone, that speaks volumes. If somebody can't even come on this most important day that he's being arraigned, that speaks volumes to the judge. Is this kid going to come back to court? Is this kid a danger to the community? Who's here for him?
So he comes in, really with his feet in the hole, because he's gotta dig out of a hole.
PAUL : But what seems so unjust about that is that in a sense the kid is getting punished because the parent or guardian is not either able to be there -- or doesn't care to be there. HUTT: Most of our kids are punished because of what goes on in their family. I've always felt that kids are symptomatic of what's happening in the family dynamic.

On the assumption that there are more poor kids and more kids of color with parents who either can't (or don't) show up to detention hearings -- that's one more shrouded stream feeding into that big river of disproportionate minority contact. Judges weigh a number of factors in deciding whether or not a kid needs to be locked up. A key factor that can apparently influence that decision is if his or her parents didn't -- or couldn't -- make it to court. How fair is that?

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