What does it do to a child when a judge calls her ‘a danger to society’?

You’re invited to a meeting to organize an action to advocate for our youth in the racist juvenile justice system: Saturday, May 8, 2 p.m., at 4 Marina Bay Parkway, Richmond, across from Harbor Gate Shopping Center

by Jovanka Beckles

“A danger to society” are the words used by Contra Costa County Judge Tom Maddock as he sent one of our children directly to juvenile hall this week for a minor first offense.

Last Dec. 18, public defenders around the Bay rallied at their courthouses to declare, “Black lives matter.” The Contra Costa County rally’s explicit statement, “Black lives matter to public defenders,” begs the question: What about judges? – Photo: Susan Tripp Pollard, Bay Area News Group
Last Dec. 18, public defenders around the Bay rallied at their courthouses to declare, “Black lives matter.” The Contra Costa County rally’s explicit statement, “Black lives matter to public defenders,” begs the question: What about judges? – Photo: Susan Tripp Pollard, Bay Area News Group

I was outraged when the judge handed down the decision, seemingly without any regard for the special circumstances the case presented. Adult providers and caregivers who were prepared to advocate for the child were not allowed to speak on her behalf.

They were prepared to demonstrate with documentation and anecdote that the girl perceived as “a danger to society” has in fact been working hard, successfully and with great promise. She aspires to be a nurse one day. If allowed to pursue her dream, we know that she can do it. Rather than her being a danger to society, the juvenile justice system is a danger to her.

The girl perceived as “a danger to society” has in fact been working hard, successfully and with great promise. Rather than her being a danger to society, the juvenile justice system is a danger to her.

When the incident occurred, this young person was sent straight to juvenile hall for one week. She was released with an ankle monitor. Upon her release, she told me that she never wanted to go back there again.

She proved it by improving her grades, staying away from negative peers, attending therapeutic groups and becoming an effective mediator working with her peers. Further proof was in the several letters written on her behalf and offered to the court by teachers, advocates and mental health providers. The letters documented how well she had improved overall.

Judge Maddock did not appear to take any of this into consideration. He didn’t see the need to read those letters or to hear from adults who could attest to her motivation to do well.

According to one of the advocates present, J.G. Larochette – a mindfulness teacher who shares his teaching, through his Mindful Life Yoga program, with Richmond children – Judge Maddock made his decision without reviewing any of the documented support for this youth. Nor did the judge hear from any of the advocates in the room. He did, however, allow a witness to speak against her.

Our children and young people are clearly in pain. It is our responsibility as adults to do our best to alleviate that pain. They need our support in ways that teach them to be healthy and productive. They do not need to be punished in institutionalized settings that kill their spirits.

Our children and young people are clearly in pain. They do not need to be punished in institutionalized settings that kill their spirits.

This young person was doing well with the services she was receiving. In fact she was thriving. Rather than allow her to continue with the services that were put in place to help her succeed, she was placed in juvenile hall without the supports that are essential to her wellbeing.

Jovanka Beckles, a member of the Richmond City Council – Photo: Ashley Hopkinson
Jovanka Beckles, a member of the Richmond City Council – Photo: Ashley Hopkinson

What does that do to a young person who tried so hard to do the right thing but is institutionalized anyway? I’ll tell you. It creates hopelessness. It creates cynicism, anger and bitterness in an already traumatized child. Is that the plan? The question warrants examination and action.

I understand and accept that there are natural consequences for behaviors. I am not suggesting there be an exception made for this individual. My issue is that the punishment does not fit the crime. My issue is that it seldom does when it comes to our youth.

My issue is that this young person is not a danger to society. If the safety of society were a genuine concern of the judge, he needs to know that incarcerating this young person is not the way to keep society safe. It is critical that he understand that the punishment of incarceration benefits neither her nor society.

If we are truly concerned about creating a “safe” society, we must create a just and safe society. There are ways to do that. Many of them can be found in the services currently being provided.

If we are truly concerned about creating a “safe” society, we must create a just and safe society.

Contra Costa County Judge Tom Maddock
Contra Costa County Judge Tom Maddock

I agree with local advocate Tamisha Torres of the Safe Return Project, who so eloquently stated: “We must commit to dismantling a system that labels our children a danger to society.”

One way to dismantle a justice system that was not created to protect Black Americans, other people of color and our children – rather it was designed to protect White Americans and their children – is to take it apart one chip at a time. We can chip away at judges who send our children to jail for minor offenses for which White children simply get a slap on the hand.

This is not new; on the contrary, there is historical precedence for this: “lots of laws on the books that were only enforced to African Americans.” See “Slavery by Another Name.”

I have been encouraging people to read or listen to Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” for some time. In her book, Ms. Alexander, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, presents a brilliant analysis of a profound truth many would rather ignore or deny.

There will be a planning meeting tomorrow, this Saturday, May 8, 2 p.m., at 4 Marina Bay Parkway, Richmond, to organize an action to advocate for our youth in the racist juvenile justice system. You’re welcome to join us.

Richmond City Council member Jovanka Beckles works as a mental health specialist for Contra Costa County. She was born in Panama City, where she grew up in a bilingual, multicultural household. Her parents moved to the United States in 1972, and she has lived in Richmond for the last 15 years. She can be reached at Jovankabeckles@gmail.com.