Last year the documentary, Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story by critically acclaimed filmmaker Dan Birman was featured on NPT and PBS stations nationwide as part of the Independent Lens series. The film follows Cyntoia Brown, a 16 year-old whose troubled journey with drug and alcohol abuse, alleged sex abuse, and a history of mental illness culminates in murder and a life sentence—without parole.
As a writer, filmmaker I am certainly not (nor have I ever claimed to be) an expert in juvenile justice issues. But as someone who spent over a decade making videos and working with those who are commonly referred to as ‘at-risk teens’ (including Cyntoia Brown) when discussing the ‘face’ of juvenile court, I feel compelled to engage in the conversation.
For anyone who has not seen Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s story, it is not about retrying the case or implying innocence or guilt or taking issue with the difficult decision faced by Nashville Juvenile Court Judge, the honorable Betty Adams Green. The film is about Brown and the complex and convoluted physical and emotional circumstances that resulted in mental illness and one man’s untimely death. And perhaps it raises an eyebrow about trying the most vulnerable of youths in an adult system.
The decision whether or not to transfer and try a teenager for murder in adult court is an enormous burden and only one of numerous weighty daily decisions required by a Juvenile Court Judge. The cases heard in juvenile court run the gamut between delinquency, dependency cases and status offenses that affect youth, families and entire communities.
Precision, fairness, discernment and compassion are all qualities required for the position and Judge Betty Adams Green (who is retiring this fall after a lengthy and admirable career) has clearly demonstrated to possess all of these qualities.
Although happy for Judge Green’s much deserved retirement, the question of who will fill her shoes is of great concern for all of Nashville and perhaps a new lens is needed if we are to address some of the harsher (less palatable) realities of the juvenile court population: racial and cultural over representation.
In 2004 a Louisville Education Journal invited me to publish a piece titled: Minority and Disenfranchised Youth in Juvenile Justice: A Dominant Majority Problem that addressed the disproportionate number of non-white youth inhabiting juvenile facilities across the country and the factors that perpetuate the continuation of ‘over representation’.
In 2007, 59 percent of juveniles in the state's secure detention centers were African-American. Eighty percent of juveniles transferred to adult court in Tennessee in 2007 were African-American. In Tennessee, 21 percent of the population under the age of 18 years was African-American.
Studies reveal that juvenile court judges weigh a number of factors when hearing cases that impact youth, families and entire communities. The judge considers family attitude, parental involvement, along with school behavior and performance, and whether or not the individual is repentant.
For several reasons, these factors can work against minority youth and families. Very often in marginalized and disenfranchised families, parents find the judicial process intimidating and sometimes attitudes that are motivated by fear and intimidation are interpreted as being uncooperative.
What is sometimes interpreted as being obstinate or uncooperative behavior is often a symptom of stress, fear, or plain fatigue. For a low-income minority family relying on public transportation in a city with a poor transit system, adhering to a schedule requires a herculean effort. And like anyone, many people are too proud or ashamed to admit hardships and often camouflage their circumstances in order to preserve their dignity.
Often what lies beneath bravado is insecurity and fear and very often this is where misunderstandings and faulty interpretations are bred. For many poor and disenfranchised youth, bravado is a form of survival—especially for young men. A common mantra heard among many juvenile court youth is "show no fear."
Of all the skills required to be an effective Juvenile Court Judge, cultural competency ranks at the top. A Juvenile Court Judge that recognizes the faces and knows and understands the needs and struggles of the families and children being served is crucial.
One of the candidates eligible for the position is Juvenile Court Magistrate Sheila Calloway, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt School of Law who was appointed to the Magistrate position by Judge Green in 2004.
Like Judge Green, Magistrate Calloway is committed, fierce, passionate and involved. The word on the street is that Magistrate Calloway (who is African American) is simultaneously tough and compassionate, and is committed (if not adamant) about both bringing and keeping families together.
According to associates, Calloway’s philosophy reflects a woman convinced of the power of mediation and cooperation and someone who respectfully recognizes the plight and circumstances of those who stand before her. And although she is adamant that in all cases justice must be served, she is equally committed to people leaving Juvenile Court feeling ‘whole’ and hopeful.
The Nashville Bar Association and the Napier-Looby Bar Association, which addresses issues of concern to minority attorneys, conducted surveys among their membership as to the most qualified candidate for the Juvenile Judge position. In both polls Magistrate Calloway was chosen as the "Highly Recommended" top candidate for the position, a huge endorsement of support from local Nashville attorneys.
It is no wonder Judge Green appointed her magistrate and is evidence that for many, the face of Juvenile Court does matter indeed.
Molly Secours is a Nashville writer, filmmaker, speaker and author who has used her artistic talents to effect social change and public policy regarding inequities in health care, education and criminal justice.
Through her film company “One Woman Show Productions” and her documentary films, Secours has earned national recognition in the world of social justice and in 2011 was awarded the Southern Criminal Justice Association Award for Outstanding Professional.
Secours latest book The White Privilege Pop Quiz: The Test You Can't Fail will be in book stores Jan. 2013. www.mollysecours.com