EDITOR’S NOTE: This column has been revised to reflect that the Atlanta Police Department’s Facebook post did not identify the judge in the case.
Police said the 16-year-old was a known gang member, a repeat offender who needed to be locked up.
In his first appearance before Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Bradley Boyd in July, he admitted those charges — all eight related to theft, gang involvement, and entering a car.
But instead of locking the teen up, Judge Boyd decided to take him out of the “unstable” environment he’d been living in and place him in the custody of a more stable, older sister.
That didn’t sit well with the Atlanta Police Department and you know what happened next.
Instead of taking its grievance to Boyd, the department publicly excoriated the judge for what it called “inexplicable leniency,” in a Facebook post that did not identify the judge.
The public’s reaction to the post was as heated as the post itself. Some of you, model adults that you are, even threatened the judge and his wife.
It was like the proverbial teapot calling the kettle black.
Granted it’s still too early to tell how this story ends, but there is good news. That teen so many of you wanted to throw away is doing just fine. Months after his release, he’s in school and, by all accounts, a respected athlete.
“His probation officer says he’s still doing good,” Boyd told me recently. “He was where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to be doing — even planning to attend college.”
Despite the teen’s about-face, Carlos Campos, spokesman for the APD, says the department stands by its Facebook post “100 percent.”
“It is a reflection of the frustration that our officers face every day when arresting the same juvenile offenders who repeatedly prey upon law-abiding people with little consequences for their actions,” he said in an email response. “If, indeed, this particular juvenile offender is getting support and is doing well — we’re pleased to hear it and we wish him continued success. But that is often not the case, unfortunately. Judges at all levels should be held accountable for the decisions they make in their courtrooms, just like any other public official.”
I asked Campos if he believes it is the police’s role to hold the judge accountable. Did the department seek a conversation with Judge Boyd before making the post to say how it felt? Was it aware that this was the teen’s first time before the court? And would the APD have taken the judge to task had the kid been white?
Campos wouldn’t respond to my specific questions but in another email added this: “Anyone who focuses on this single post is missing the entire point of the discussion: We have a juvenile justice system that is broken and we see its impacts every single day.”
The system may indeed be broken, as chronicled in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s juvenile justice series that starts Sunday, but it seems to me publicly criticizing a judge without a conversation with him first just isn’t the way you change it. The post looked to me like the department sought only to publicly shame the judge, which was far worse than any crimes committed by this kid. They put a public servant’s life at risk. That’s inexcusable.
When I talked to Judge Boyd recently, I was struck not only by the grace he extended to the teen but that, despite the threats on his life, he could extend that same grace to the APD.
“They just don’t understand the role of the court,” he said.
Most people, it seems, don’t.
It’s true the primary goal of the juvenile justice system is to maintain public safety. The focus, though, has always been rehabilitation rather than punishment.
That was indeed the prevailing view until the late 1980s, when kids were labeled “superpredators” who posed a serious threat to public safety. In the 1990s, Congress, as well as Georgia and many other states, passed laws putting punishment ahead of rehabilitation. Make no mistake, those superpredators were black kids just like this teen, just like the young black males in my own family.
At the same time, white kids were being given a pass. They were just kids being kids. Black kids, on the other hand, were being tried as adults and given the longest sentences possible.
As my AJC colleague Alan Judd reports in his juvenile justice series, black teens account for about half of all juvenile arrests in Georgia, but four-fifths of the youths convicted as adults.
In the last decade, thank goodness, policymakers and some in the public have had second thoughts about this harsh approach, and the country has moved toward a less punitive response to youth crime. Yes, even for black kids.
Come back Tuesday, when I’ll explore that question and more.
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