Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Alternative Sentencing

On the Colbert Report the other day, there was a feature about a juvenile court judge in Massachusetts who sentences youths to a theater program rather than to juvenile detention.

This form of alternative sentencing leaves open the option for youths to gain certain skills, confidence, and relationships that they would not have otherwise.

This sort of "punishment" is what the juvenile justice system was originally established to impose. Youths were to learn from their indiscretions, be treated as the children of the juvenile court judge, and be rehabilitated by the society that failed them.

The video clips on the Colbert Report showed the same boy who was brought to court for beating up another kid donning a toga and reciting prose. It is not clear that Shakespear is the best way to reach troubled youths -- but it certainly seems like a start.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Internet -- the Next Frontier for Catching Mischievous Youth

As my last post indicated, more and more youths are using the internet unsupervised. Not only does this lead to the victimization of youths by adult preditors, it could also lead youths to carelessly self-incriminate themselves. recently posted an article about "Cops
Walking the MySpace Beat" (available at

Young people go on the internet, use websites like MySpace, Facebook, or even BlogSpot. They post sometimes incriminating information (about both petty and serious crimes), and that information is available to anyone, including law enforcement.

This poses an intresting legal conundrum. Clearly the information is out there, announced to the world, and therefore open for the authorities. As youths, however, it seems that the suspects may not understand the possible repercussions in making such information widely available.

In the 1967 Supreme Court case In re Gault, the Court carefully considered the specific vulnerabilities that impact youths and self-incrimination. Youths may not understand what they are doing, and they may be entitled to increased protection. Gault, however, focuses on the case where the youth is already the suspect who is being interrogated by the police. Such interrogation, without protection, leaves children particularly vulnerable. Websites that lull youths into a false sense of security (that they're in their own "youthful sphere") pose particular risks. There is no issue of wrongful interrogation -- these young people choose to put this information out there.

I'm all for the police being able to catch criminals, but I feel that in this case they're getting a free pass at information that these youths do not understand can incriminate them. I don't think there is a way to make this sort of information inadmissible -- it is out there for the taking. Rather, I think that there needs to be wider awareness and information available for youths (maybe even on the websites on which they post) that would crack open that sense of security and inform them that their comments about their weekend trouble-making (photos, or even video) could end up being used against them in a court of law.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Internet Child Sex Abuse Stings

Over the past few days I've been running into many stories about adults soliciting sex from children over the internet. For example, Brian Doyle, the deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security is facing charges relating to such inappropriate contact online. This is a frightening and dangerous practice that poses many problems for the zealous child advocate.

There is a conundrum because the internet can be such a fantastic place for learning. It can open new worlds and allow children to see new places, new animals and new perspectives all from the safety of their own home. Unfortunately, that freedom also allows in a lot from the outside world.

Brian Doyle was arrested after having "chatted" inappropriately (and apparently very graphically) with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl who was actually a detective. There seems to be an increasing trend in such "sting" operations. I think it is a fantastic and easy way for these perpetrators to be caught.

I worry though because these operations seem to toe the line of legality. While I wish we could put away each and every single adult who is inappropriate with a child behind bars, I want to ensure that the methodology for catching them does not give them a get out of jail free card when the prosecutions cannot stand because of entrapment.

Posing as a child online, though, does not seem to be an invitation for perverts. A detective should be able to log into chat rooms and chat all day as a "young teen" without one illicit invitation. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Hopefully the detectives can continue this practice unimpeded by the laws and put away the many adults abusing children over the web (and sometimes consequently in person).

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Two Strategies for the Child Advocate

In considering the totality of my Child Advocacy Policy Workshop, I've realized that there are two possible courses of action for a child advocate. The child advocate can either (1) pursue a total restructuring of our society's distribution of rights between children and adults, or (2) embrace newer "holistic"-type approaches that use a piecemeal method of reaching certain portions of the at-risk populations.

To clarify a bit, (1) represents the struggle within the current distribution of constitutuional rights in the family. Currently the parents have nearly 100% of the rights. Children, on the other hand, basically have a traditional right to custody, but not much more than that. There have been growing movements to increase the amount of children's rights, but these have mostly proven unsuccessful in the U.S. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, was not signed by the Senate. Pursuing greater children's protections along these lines seems like a difficult battle. Adults are not generally interested in granting rights to children, because it is viewed as a sacrifice of some of their rights -- rights are often viewed as a zero sum game. Additionally, children do not have the financial, political or organizational capital to really fend for themselves.

Strategy (2) for gaining ground for children has been somewhat successful already. The sorts of holistic approaches are things like new schools that consider the totality of the child, Early Home Intervention, Family Treatment Courts, and the like. These strategies work within the existing distribution of rights. It is much more likely that these sorts of strategies can succeed, but they often miss out on the most at-risk and in-need portions of the child population. Many of these programs are voluntary and involve the parent deciding to relinquish some of their own rights -- which means that the parents who are most likely to abuse their children, will most likely not want to pass on this power.

This dichotomy between (1) and (2) is somewhat superficial, but I hope that it might provide a new way of looking at the conundrum of figuring out how to deal with children's issues. I am pleased that from the Child Advocacy Policy Workshop it has become increasingly clear that there are dedicated and passionate people working to protect the rights of children under both (1) and (2). As of yet I have not yet decided which strategy I will pursue.