Keeping Kids out of Court, in School

Daily Journal
November 7, 2014

Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye is Chief Justice of California.

What should happen to a teenage girl who keeps getting into fights at school? To a 12-year-old caught selling drugs? To a boy who has run away from home 10 times?  

As California's chief justice, I know that over 50,000 times a year judges in the juvenile court system are faced with deciding how to hold children accountable when they break the law while at the same time considering the circumstances that brought them before the court. In most cases, the alleged wrongdoing is only the latest event in a child's life that was set on a difficult and sometimes tragic path many years earlier.  

Studies have found 93 percent of youth in juvenile justice custody have grown up with childhood trauma such as violence, sexual abuse and neglect. Given that exposure to trauma can impair brain development and lead to symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, it shouldn't come as a surprise that trauma is a top predictor of school suspension, academic failure and getting in trouble with the law.  

Learning about the impact of childhood trauma is important to all of us dealing with school discipline and truancy issues. Last year, I helped convene the Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Summit, which spotlighted the problem of school discipline and attendance policies that may increase children's risk of entering the juvenile and criminal justice system. Just a few years ago, California schools were issuing nearly 800,000 school suspensions a year, the majority unrelated to violence or drugs. Misbehavior in school often meant that overcrowded juvenile courts had to handle incidents that may be best handled by the schools themselves.  

Through the Keeping Kids in School initiative, 32 California counties have formed teams to understand more about all of the factors that lead to our children and youth dropping out of school and into the juvenile justice system, including childhood trauma, and to apply that knowledge in the courtroom, the schools and the community. For example, in Sacramento County the Probation Department has rolled out a new education-based supervision model that better supports youth in the community by partnering with school districts. If a juvenile offender comes to court, the court could inquire about the child's personal history and circumstances, and if warranted, could order support services for the child and her family. At the same time, probation officers in partnership with the child's school would encourage the student to fully engage in his or her education.  

Training and education are key to addressing the issue. For example, a recent workshop called "Judging the Teen Brain - What Judges Need to Know About Adolescent Brain Development" introduced judges to neurobiological research showing that the brains of young people don't fully mature until their mid-20s, and that exposure to trauma can short-circuit that development when they are repeatedly flooded with "fight or flight" hormones in situations that threaten their lives or well-being.  

I am by no means suggesting that we should excuse the misbehavior of children and youth simply because their life history includes traumatic events. Accountability is essential to the learning and development of young people into responsible adults. But public safety and the judicial system could both benefit by incorporating a youth's personal history in developing a plan that gives him or her the best chance to get back on track for success in school and in life. It's also cost-effective. According to the California Endowment, we currently spend $62,300 a year to keep one inmate in prison, and just $9,100 per year per student in our public schools.  

This approach is analogous to the one used in working with adult offenders by applying evidence-based practices in sentencing decisions. Focusing on those factors that drive criminal behavior saves tax payers money, reduces recidivism and improves public safety.  

Everyone who works with children, including judges, is striving to learn and understand the impact that childhood trauma has on our kids. For that reason, I'm participating in California's largest-ever conference on the impact of childhood trauma held this week in San Francisco, where health experts, educators and justice system leaders are coming together to share strategies to prevent and address this hidden health crisis.