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Author Explains Juvenile Justice System

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Television court dramas may draw a lot of young viewers, but they don't educate the public about the juvenile justice system. Author and lawyer John W. Biggers hopes his Kids Law books will help adults and teens understand the juvenile system. Included: Description of Kids Law content.

Years of working with teens, their families, and even sometimes their teachers in the U.S. juvenile justice system -- and realizing how confusing it can be - prompted attorney John W. Biggers to write Kids Law: A Practical Guide to Juvenile Justice. The book outlines the juvenile justice system and how it works with different issues. A teacher's guide helps educator's use the book in their classrooms.

Biggers recently talked with Education World about the books and his passion for helping adults and kids better understand the country's juvenile justice system.

John W. Biggers

Education World: What prompted you to write Kids Law: A Practical Guide to Juvenile Justice?

John W. Biggers: After a long career working in a variety of legal areas, I felt that one of the most critical needs today in the legal arena is to assist children, youth, and their families in confronting the fast-changing area of juvenile justice. Here is one field of the law where lasting, positive results can be achieved. Watching kids grow in terms of maturity and responsibility is a truly rewarding aspect of practicing law. Then, I saw that most kids who I assisted in the juvenile court, as well as the adults who live and work with them -- parents, teachers, counselors, juvenile court staff, and many other caring adults -- need a ready resource that informs them on why and how the law really impacts their lives.

EW: What was your goal in writing the book?

Biggers: I was motivated to write a book that is practical and explains how the juvenile justice system can be a friend and not a fearsome enemy. This means, how the law affects juveniles because of their own actions, and how it affects them because of the actions (or inaction) of adults. My primary goal was to provide an easily understood, practical guide that can be read by kids or the adults in their lives, not merely to "get out of trouble with the law," but more importantly to give helpful suggestions on how to make choices in their relationships and responsibilities at home, in school, and in the larger community.

In other words, Kids Law is a concept that means kids and adults will know first-hand what the law says about their rights and their responsibilities, all within a proper appreciation of the responsibilities that we owe each other and ourselves -- the three R's of Kids Law.

Kids Law does not involve only crime and delinquency situations, but also custody issues related to marriage and divorce, adoption, abuse, and neglect of children, employment, education, property issues, and a wide variety of everyday events that happen to kids and their families.

EW: What is your involvement with the juvenile justice system?

Biggers: For 15 years, I have worked with juveniles and their families involved with the criminal justice system, and also on issues including domestic or family law, employment and school issues, and emancipation of youth -- kids on their own. As an outgrowth of that, I developed a curriculum for middle and high schools, so classes could study the practical aspects of the law, usually within their social studies courses. The book Kids Law was an outgrowth of these classes, and I have promoted the use of Kids Law in middle and high schools, now accompanied by a teacher's manual that was written by an experienced educator who has worked in the field of law-related education.

EW: What are some common misconceptions adults and youths have about the juvenile justice system?

Biggers: Many, if not most, kids and adults feel that the juvenile justice system is an adversary -- a place where people simply want to hand out punishment for the "bad deeds of bad kids". I have found that the majority of professionals in the system -- judges, prosecutors, probation and corrections workers, and many related support staff members -- are extremely dedicated to seeing that kids who do run up against the law have the kind of help that is needed to prevent continued problems with the law, with the ultimate goal of leading the juveniles into responsible adulthood.

I have seen and heard parents use the system as a threat: "You misbehaved, so now you are going to get what you deserve." Others feel that the juvenile justice system is a cop out because they think we need to be tougher on kids who don't follow the rules and quit coddling them. "Do adult crime and you do adult time," the argument goes. Also, often the system is seen as a dumping ground for misfits; a way to get kids out of someone's hair.

EW: Why do you think so few adults and young people understand the justice system, even with the popularity of court dramas on TV?

Biggers: Most people, of all ages, see law as they do medicine -- a part of life that is out of reach of the ordinary person. A subject that can be used in exciting -- and over-romanticized -- dramas that is more amazing than accurate in their portrayal of the system. In other words, the media -- and to a large degree, the legal profession -- have always made the law, lawyers, judges, and courtrooms a part of life that is larger than life; work and subject matter that is reserved for specialists, usually persons who are more brilliant than the rest of society might be. As a response, how about a prime-time television series that explains the legal issues confronting kids and families?

I feel that the law should be just as easy to understand in everyday life as are the rules of the road for driving or proper courtesies in our daily activities. I remind kids and others I talk with about Kids Law that the most available "place" in the community, which belongs to everyone, is the courtroom. Highly trained lawyers are there, of course, but they are not the only ones who should know and appreciate what is happening. In fact, ordinary folks serving as jurors often decide the most important issues in the system. Lawyers and judges do not make the decision on whether someone gets the death penalty, but the jury of our peers, the average citizen, makes that final judgment.

EW: What could be done to better educate the public about the justice system?

Biggers: Of course, I feel that there should be many programs, such as courses, study groups, workshops, and a variety of formal and informal settings, where the law --primarily the juvenile justice system -- is taught and discussed in very understandable terms. Not just as some academic exercise, but as a give-and-take interaction involving educators, law and other professionals, such as counselors, psychologists, and behavioral health providers, with the goal of bringing the public to a practical and positive understanding of the law. There can be all sorts of settings: in school, youth and family groups in the community, and parent-teacher organizations, Boy and Girl Scouts, church groups, and Big Brother/Sisters.

Provisions must be made for well-organized training for class and group leaders, and involvement of community organizations in planning and implementing programs. The legal and associated professions, such as education and behavioral health, should work directly with universities and other socially concerned groups so that relevant and exciting media efforts are undertaken to inform and motivate the public to accept responsibility for dealing with the meaning and impact of the justice system in American society.

This e-interview with John W. Biggers is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2005 Education World

Originally published 08/12/2004; updated 04/27/2005


 

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