Fulton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Bradley Boyd (second from right) is pictured with other local judicial and law enforcement officials in 2014 at a Crime & Safety Summit at Cascade United Methodist Church. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

OPINION: Juvenile court isn’t what it used to be; nor should it be

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.

Many of us, including the Atlanta Police Department, went ballistic a few months ago when Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Bradley Boyd, in a moment of grace, released a 16-year-old accused of multiple offenses, including being affiliated with a gang and repeatedly breaking into cars.

Boyd turned the kid over to a more stable and mature sister, and the Atlanta Police Department took to the internet, and without identifying the judge, accused him of extreme leniency.

It was the kind of story we reporters swoop in to cover but rarely go back to visit.

On Friday, I offered an update. The kid was back in school, doing just fine, and Boyd, in another show of grace, explained the police department’s reaction away, saying the APD just doesn’t understand the juvenile court’s role.

Unlike white kids who get into trouble, black kids like this 16-year-old more often that not are considered “superpredators” who pose a serious threat to public safety. What’s more, black kids are often tried as adults and given the longest sentences possible.

In the past decade, however, the courts have been moving toward a less punitive response to youth crime, and that’s been true, thank goodness, even for black kids.

The question I left off with on Friday was why?

Well, contrary to popular belief, juvenile crime rates are down, and incarceration policies are straining local and state budgets. More important, Boyd said, is there is mounting evidence that indicates imposing harsh sentences on young offenders is unlikely to reduce reoffending or contribute to public safety in the way that supporters of get-tough policies had assumed. A recent yearlong investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution supports that view, finding that those convicted as adults or sent to juvenile prisons remain the most likely to commit additional offenses when they are released.

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In fact, sending youths to prison may increase recidivism. Plus, a growing body of research on adolescent development, particularly brain development, reinforces the conventional wisdom that adolescents are different from adults in ways that affect their criminal conduct.

“Locking up kids doesn’t do them any good and in fact does them damage,” Boyd said.

The research is there, but Boyd, who first came to this work in 1973 as a juvenile probation officer, has seen it with his own eyes. Kids were sentenced to jail only to come out as hardened criminals.

Boyd, who spent six years as a probation officer, went to law school, graduating from the old Woodrow Wilson College of Law in 1977 and briefly working on a juvenile justice project with the Atlanta Regional Commission and returning to Fulton County Juvenile Court as a staff attorney.

For about three years from 1983 to 1985, he was a child advocate attorney representing children who’d been neglected and abused before he joined the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, then a defense attorney in both the Fulton and DeKalb county juvenile courts and finally as judge in 2006.

Judge Bradley Boyd, chief of the Fulton County Juvenile Court, was recently criticized for setting a teen repeat offender free. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By the time he came on the bench 13 years ago, Boyd said the juvenile court was starting to use mediation programs and looking for alternative ways of addressing delinquent cases. While a lot of federal money was being thrown into programs to address juvenile delinquency, there was also this growing fear of kids who were considered superpredators.

Any kid with a gun was locked up. No questions asked. No mercy.

“It became apparent that that was overly simplistic,” Boyd said. “Jail was a breeding ground for learning the wrong stuff. More importantly, being locked up, shackled, removed from your environment is not only traumatic to children, it damages them. Using lockup as a sanction can sometimes have a more negative effect than imposing no sanctions at all.”

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From a public policy perspective, Boyd said, locking kids up, usually for a minimum of 10 days, is expensive and reduces a kid’s chances of graduating from high school by as much as 30%.

And so it’s the judge’s contention that “we ought to be using detention for the kids who scare us, not for those who make us mad.”

Unfortunately, Boyd said, the community, including police departments, has been slow to shift to more evidence-based, sensible and effective juvenile justice policy. They still believe criminals, including juveniles and especially black kids, ought to be locked up.

It used to be, Boyd said, children were funneled into a scared straight program, but the impact was so negative the recidivism rate was something like two.

“It was awful,” Boyd said. “You sent them back to their own community with no support and new ideas of how to be a bad ass. We just tried stuff.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lately, with ever-increasing treatment modes and evidenced-based programs like multisystemic therapy, Thinking for Change and the Boys Club, he’s starting to see some success and less recidivism.

“This is about finding ways to reintegrate kids back into the community in more meaningful ways,” Boyd said. “That’s what the juvenile court is about.”

Boyd said he appreciates the job police have to do to maintain safe communities, but the court’s mission is to rehabilitate children, restore families and also protect the community.

A big part of that is understanding the mix of circumstances that lead children to his courtroom, including parts of their story the rest of us aren’t privy to.

“Oftentimes when victims come into court and hear the whole story and start to understand what was going on and what is, they say they don’t need restitution, they just want to make things better for the kid,” Boyd said.

Such was the case this time around.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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