The recent violent youth flashmobs in downtown Philadelphia have prompted an aggressive response from by police and policymakers. There’s talk of new curfews and a heavier police presence in potential hot spots. And a Family Court judge has handed down stiff sentences to youths caught up in the melees. We look at what happens to the kids who are brought to Philadelphia family court to face the music.[audio:100325spflash.mp3]
Family court procedings are different from adult trials. First of all, kids don’t get jury trials. And the aim is not punishment, but rehabilitation.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison is a former public defender. He says the juvenile justice system is geared toward getting kids treatment.
“There’s a graduated response, it’s probation for some, it’s boot camp for others, it’s Glen Mills or longterm placement for others, but it depends on the needs of the child. It’s not just lock them up and throw away the key, that’s not an answer. It’s look at what’s responsible, look at what we need to do and go from there.”
But for family and friends, a Family Court appearance can be both tedious and intimidating. They could sit in hard backed chairs for hours before entering a courtroom where Judge Kevin Dougherty is all-powerful, making far-reaching decisions about the young people before him.
Once Dougherty decides guilt or innocence, he asks for a family history and permits his young defendant to speak. Then he delivers part lecture, part pep talk. He’ll reprimand a child for disrespecting his mother. And he’ll just as easily reprimand the mother for acting out like a child.
Dougherty asks parents and caregivers for feedback on their child and what kind of help they need.
He may then order reading and I.Q. tests, psychological evaluations, and social worker visits to siblings. But in the flash mob cases, he didn’t wait for results of those tests before imposing sentences.
Earlier this week, one mother erupted in shouts and tears after hearing she’d be seperated from her son, who Judge Dougherty sent to the private disciplinary school, Glenn Mills. But Everett Gillison says Glenn Mills is not such a bad option for kids on the wrong path.
“It is a disciplinary school, lets not mince words, but it is a school that is there to give them a productive way out. I used to represent kids who went to Glenn Mills, and to see them when they went in angry, depressed with not much of a future, and then when they graduate from there, they get their diploma, they get some vocational training and they see a way forward.”
Twenty-nine out of thirty kids charged with recent flash mob violence were either found guilty, or plead to charges. All but one got felony convictions.
Gillison says its important for the courts to judge the kids as individuals, and not assume guilt by association.
But some say that’s not so easy. Robert Listinbee is lead attorney with the juvenile unit of the Defender Associaton.
“I can assure you that it’s gonna be very difficult for judge Dougherty or any judge who’s hearing these cases to sort through and determine what delinquent conduct occured. Because there was large numbers of children involved and different kinds of conduct going on so its going to be hard for the judge to sort through this.”
Listenbee says a number of efforts have reduced the number of kids put in state custody, which has saved taxpayers money.
Assistant District Attorney Angel Flores says budget cuts mean the courts have been leaning toward keeping kids at home.
A kid who may in the past been sent to a juvenile treatment facility, to recieve treatment in order to rehabilitate them, now may recieve that same level of treatment with community based services.”
Flores will be back in court next month, prosecuting four adults charged in connection with the flash mob incidents. I’m Susan Phillips, Whyy news.