I believe that people can change because I’ve experienced this hard-to-quantify miracle, both in myself and in others in my work as a judge with the Juvenile Court in Los Angeles. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve seen a wide range of young people: teens with two parents, single, gay and incarcerated parents; teens raised by grandparents, in foster and group homes, average kids, geniuses who skipped high school, gang kids and taggers, celebrity teens and those who came with high-powered attorneys. There were fourteen-year-olds accompanied by their own infants, teens whose family members had been killed by gang or domestic violence, kids who were learning-disabled and teens who were addicted.
Some of their stories broke my heart. There was one teen with multiple offenses who appeared with his mother. When I asked her where her dad was, she shrugged. It turned out she hadn’t seen her father since se was two, and her mother’s current husband was living on the streets. Another involved a teen who had shoplifted, but when I dug deeper into his history, I learned that the theft had occurred a month after he’d found his mother dead from a suicide. But the case that changed me forever occurred a couple of months into my assignment to juvenile court. It involved a young man who had been in a school fight. He wore baggy clothes to court, and his head looked shaved. I immediately assumed he was a gang member, another one of many I’d already seen. But he wasn’t, and his head wasn’t shaven. I learned he’d lost his hair while undergoing chemotherapy.
I felt a change in me almost immediately, pledging never to make easy assumptions. But more than that, I realized that change is infectious. Changing my attitude gave me the tools to better nurture change in others. So when county budgets limited my judge’s arsenal for rehabilitation, I sought out other resources besides the usual fines and license suspensions. I send teens to community service, send them to scared straight programs, drug programs, order them to attend counseling, boot camp, school, therapy, hospital ERs, the county morgue and the Museum of Tolerance. I even give them essays to write. Has every case been a success story? Hardly, and those same budgetary limitations make it nearly impossible to follow up. But I can still intuit change every day.
I feel it when I’m able to cut through bureaucratic red tape and find a teen the right rehab program. I sense it when a kid who once appeared before me becomes a part of my staff, or when a parent sends flowers to my school liaison. Most of all, I know it when I see a teen once and never again.
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