Most court proceedings involving juveniles are not open to the public.
"What's your child's name?" the court clerk asks a couple outside of the courtroom.
She motions, then leads the parents and their son through the door and gestures toward a wooden table and three padded chairs. "Folks, have a seat at this table. Mom and Dad, you can sit up here, too."
The trio wait. The boy reads the charges lodged against him. His parents sit quietly. They don't talk or even whisper.
Then the nervous silence is interrupted.
"Please rise," Judge Jean Shepherd says as she walks into the courtroom and sits down. "Please be seated."
The judge reads the two charges to the boy, making sure he understands that if he's found guilty of either charge, he could be sent to the Youth Center at Topeka until he's 21. She asks several times if he understands what she's just told him.
He responds simply with a "Yes."
Shepherd reminds the boy that he is under the supervision of Douglas County Court Services. They've outlined rules for him, such as attending school, not breaking the law and meeting regularly with a Court Services officer. It's how well he follows those rules, Shepherd says, that will help her decide whether the boy can remain at home or whether he needs more supervision.
This closed-door routine -- a juvenile's first court appearance -- repeats itself many times each week. Last year alone, 359 cases were filed against Douglas County juveniles -- those children who are 10 to 17.
In Kansas, most proceedings involving juvenile offenders are not public. In fact, only formal hearings (the equivalent of trials for adults) for juveniles 16 and older are open to the public. Victims can make statements during disposition hearings (the equivalent of sentencing for adults), but victims cannot be in the courtroom during discussions about the child's history or his family's history.
When to file
The decision whether to file charges against juveniles in Douglas County rests with Shelly Diehl, an assistant district attorney. She reviews reports from law officers, deciding whether a crime's been committed. Then she asks herself, "Who needs to be disciplined? Who needs to be held responsible?"
"The effort is always to reintegrate the kids into the community," said Diehl, who's prosecuted juveniles here since July 1991.
The worst punishment the state can dole out to juvenile offenders is to lock them up until their 21st birthday at one of the state's four youth centers in Topeka, Atchison, Beloit and Larned.
As of last Thursday, nine Douglas County juveniles were being held in youth centers -- three each in Topeka, Atchison and Beloit.
The best possibility for a juvenile offender is a diversion agreement, in which the child agrees not to break any laws and agrees to follow certain rules for a certain period of time. The alleged offense then doesn't appear on the child's record.
And there's a myriad of other possibilities, including:
- Probation, during which the child may be required to meet regularly with a Court Services officer; attend therapy or counseling; participate in family therapy or counseling; attend school regularly; pay restitution; submit to psychological or drug and alcohol testing; participate in drug and alcohol treatment; and perform community service work.
- Suspension or restriction of the child's driver's license.
- Placement in Douglas County Community Corrections, which intensely supervises its clients.
- House arrest.
- Placement until the child's 21st birthday in a treatment facility or group home.
Sending a message
Locking a child up in a youth center is a last resort.
But Judge Shepherd said, "There are some kids who have to go to YCAT as a message to them and the community about what they did."
How tough Diehl wants the judge to be on a juvenile depends on the family's level of cooperation, the juvenile's attitude and actions and, of course, the type of crime.
"If you have parents who are involved, that's going to go a long way," Diehl said. "Parents provide an awful lot."
But she added, "I wouldn't put anyone on diversion who really isn't willing to change."
Chrisy Hamilton, a social worker with the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services who works with juvenile offenders daily, said that despite her best efforts, she'll have an effect on only 80 percent to 85 percent of her young clients.
"My children are very, very impressionable," Hamilton said. "They can easily be swayed one way or another."
Once juvenile offenders are placed in SRS custody -- either because of the number or severity of their crimes -- it's Hamilton's job to set up services for the child and his or her family. That might include sex education, in-home family therapy, anger management and drug and alcohol treatment.
SRS's mission is to keep the family intact for as long as possible.
Many local officials in the criminal justice system and law enforcement agree that it's a small number of juveniles who commit most of the crimes.
"It's the same people doing a lot of different crimes," police Sgt. Craig Shanks said.
And Officer Warren Burket said some juveniles know how to play the system, saying the right things to social workers, the judge and police.
When it sinks in
The prospect of adult prison does scare juvenile offenders, Shanks said, but sometimes not until it's too late.
"They have no concept of what could happen to them because of all of this," Shanks said.
They'd better start thinking about it. Across the nation, the trend has been toward tougher punishment for young offenders. Last year, the Kansas Legislature approved a measure requiring 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried as adults on their second felony charge. Lawmakers also made it a crime for anyone younger than 18 to possess a firearm, except under certain limited circumstances.
And this year, state lawmakers are reviewing the juvenile justice system, looking at boot camps as another possible punishment.
State Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence, who is a proponent of funding more prevention programs, said, "There will be a lot of focus on the end product, I'm afraid."