Judicial Colloquialisms in Juvenile Courts
Updated: Oct 25
Numerous issues plague our criminal justice system, both in adult and juvenile courts. Prosecutorial, and judicial discretion can impact individuals’ dispositions, and this is often the cause for lack of uniformity in sentencing; even for similar crimes. The judicial system plays a large role in how cases are handled from start to finish. A judge that is currently sitting on the Family Court – Juvenile trial calendar has a lot more discretion in how the courtroom proceedings are handled, because the majority of juvenile court proceedings are behind closed doors, with sealed records.
This can cause a lack of transparency for the public to know what is happening in the courtroom and how judges handled case by case decisions. Transparency, and discretion play a large role in both juvenile and adult proceedings, one other factor that plays a significant impact is the use of judicial colloquialisms in the courts. Individuals have the right to a lawyer in criminal cases due to the 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Furthermore, the purpose of a lawyer in court proceedings is to zealously advocate on behalf of the client. Moreover, the lawyer is arguing on the client’s behalf with a legal knowledge, and background to help the client make informed decisions based on the case facts, factors, the law, status, and caselaw, as well as possible outcomes.
Even with a lawyer present, an obstacle in courtroom proceedings is a lack of understanding. Some adults do not fully understand their rights, they are (with exceptions) more developed and psychologically, physically, and emotionally to make informed decisions, and weigh long-term options. Adolescents on the other hand, often have issues with decision marking, weighing their legal options, and fully understanding the situation they are in. Children, no matter what age, may not fully understand courtroom vernacular, even if it is explained.
Judges, lawyers, and courtroom staff however don’t always have the chance to fully explain the meaning of these words and their implications. This can be due to time constraints, and frankly, there is no statute that mandates the courtroom staff (judges, lawyers, social workers) to explain the meaning of these words to the child. While the courtroom is already an intimidating setting, children and adolescents often want to do whatever is necessary just to go home. Countless interrogations are prefaced with, “I just want to go home.” This is seen in the now famously publicized Brendan Dassey case. This case was made into a documentary by Netflix’s, Making a Murderer. This case raises many juvenile issues. To name one, IQ issues arose from the show as Brendan has an IQ that borderlines as in the deficiency range. This poses the question, how should IQ should be factored into his case specifically, as well as others. Can a juvenile waive rights if they don’t understand them? What if they developmentally are unable to understand waiver? In terms of admissions, false confessions are also in this realm of research and if they admit to what they think the authority figure wants them to say, often they think they can go home or don’t understand the repercussions By waiving their rights, the child does not always fully understand the repercussions that can have in the long run. As most proceedings are supposed to be “speedy” the truth of the matter is, legal issues take time. Court proceedings are continued, speedy trial is waived, and a host of other factors keep juveniles (and adults) in jail awaiting their trial, a plea agreement, and adjudication.
Some remedies that have been proposed for helping children understand the proceedings and the system more clearly are pamphlets, colorful and easy to read charts, interactive games, coloring books, and for those who have access, there are internet resources. In the District of Columbia, the Public Defender Service is actually present in-house at one of the Youth Services Centers, which can also help liaison information between the child, the prosecutors, and parents if they are available. Informational guides produced by Juvenile Law Centers and other institutions can help parents navigate the process and the law as well. Some states implement “Peer Courts” or “Teen Courts”, which have garnered mixed opinions by professionals in the field due to the fact that peers and teens are still developing physically, mentally, as well as still developing their decision-making cortex of the brain.
There are numerous age cohorts that juvenile courts come into contact with. The methods discussed above may work for children of younger ages, but teens and young adults may not find this effective. Development varies from child to child as well.
Various jurisdictions that have a pamphlet of courtroom terminology aligned next to adult vernacular similar or analogous to help explain the vocabulary that may arise in the proceedings. This is ineffective for many reasons. This of course can’t cover every stage of the adjudication process, nor all the terms that may arise in a friendly, age appropriate fashion Some individuals are unaware of the parallels to begin with, if they don’t understand, have experience with, or are confused about the adult system, there is no way to compare the two. This is also ineffective because juvenile court is not adult court. At least it is not supposed to be. Arguably, in many states, some would not be able to distinguish the difference between adult criminal court and juvenile court. The punishments are more often than not, lengthy detention far from home, heavy fines for the family to pay, psychological trauma, physical trauma, and many other factors that arise during proceedings, before and after.
An argument on the other hand, to combat making the courtroom easier for the layperson, adult or juvenile, is that this is exactly why lawyers go to law school. It keeps lawyers in business, and legalese is a special discipline that requires many qualifications and certifications.
To be more effective, allowing attorneys the time to speak to the child, explain the entire process, and not box them into accepting offers or waiving rights they don’t completely understand. While this is not always realistic, and attorneys are sometimes meeting their client for the first time during the court proceeding, the courts need to implement a system to allow more time for clients and their attorneys, without extending their time away from their families, their schools, and their comforts. There are many other possible proposals to address this issue, but for now, raising awareness that it is indeed a problem is the first step.
* This article stems from an in-depth paper previously written by Maria Latimer.