City Life

Dismantling the prison pipeline

‘What do I do with a child no one wants?

Frederick Douglass remarked, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men [and women].” As my bailiff places the “closed hearing” sign on my courtroom door, I put on my black robe, take the bench and participate in the confidential world of juvenile justice. When I took the bench as a Dane County Circuit Court judge a year ago, my days would often end in tears, emotional exhaustion and frustration. I could not come up with an answer to this simple and complex question: What do I do with a child no one wants? How can I help these children caught in a systematic web that does not have all the resources it needs to help them?

As I conclude my first year on the bench, I’ve heard stories from young people whose lives are filled with trauma, abuse, abandonment, mental health issues, anxiety and depression. These stories have led me to conclude there is an active pipeline in Dane County: one in which traumatized young men and women enter the child welfare system, move into juvenile delinquency and ultimately end up in the adult criminal justice system. 

As a Dane County judge in the juvenile rotation, I am responsible for Children in Need of Protection and Services, known as CHIPS, juvenile delinquency, family and civil cases. In many of my CHIPS cases, children come into the court system for several reasons: physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, inability of the parent to care for the child, parental drug addiction, or parental frustration over the child. The objective is to get these children into safe and permanent homes, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Some children go from one foster home to the next, move in and out of group homes, or spend time in residential care centers. As a result, they are in and out of school. They fall behind. With a lack of stability and little connection to any community, chances are they will soon enter the juvenile justice system. 

When a child is placed in a detention center—like Lincoln Hills School, Copper Lake School or Mendota Mental Health Institute—and fights with a staff person or another child, that child could be charged with an adult felony offense. So, while the child is serving a juvenile sentence, he or she could also face an adult charge that could lead to adult sentencing. 

As a judge, I am trying to use the courtroom process to disrupt this pipeline. I recognize the court process can reinforce the trauma that brought these young men and women to me. I decided my court would demonstrate compassion, patience and belief in transformation. I know these kids are already hurting and scared. 

I began by working with other judges to change the practice of handcuffing juveniles entering the courtroom. Handcuffing often serves to fuel trauma and distrust. Removing the cuffs was a step toward ensuring that the courtroom and this process did not rob the children of their humanity. 

I also let the young people speak in court. I want to hear from them. I want to hear their voices. I find their voices authentic and genuine. I often ask the young men and women to assist in 
developing their own treatment plans. These young people develop steps and discuss the support they need to make their lives better. When they believe that someone in power will listen to them, they respond with creativity and imagination. Many days I am inspired by stories of resilience and determination. Discovering this power within these children requires listening to them. 

Reversing that pipeline and changing the course of these children’s lives is a huge task. It requires changing a system decades in the making. When you dissect mass incarceration, remember that many of those men and women fell into the pipeline of broken, abused and discarded children until finally, sadly, flowing out the pipeline’s end into a prison cell. As Bryan Stevenson said, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the condemned.”

Dane County and the city of Madison are places rich with creativity, passion and intelligence. If you want to assist in dismantling this pipeline, take the step and become a high-needs foster home for teenagers, become a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, volunteer. Create a book drive for children in detention, or work with community leaders to develop treatment group homes in Dane County so judges have more options to place children.

It is our job, judges included, to ensure that we dismantle this pipeline and get back to building strong and resilient children instead of preparing to repair broken men and women returning from prison.

Everett Mitchell is a Dane County Circuit Court judge, pastor of Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church on Madison’s east side and a law school graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.


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