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BLEAK HOUSE: Is our justice system working for young people?

From felony pranks to frustrated victims, a legal bureaucracy and the injustice of inconsistency

COLUMBIA, Mo 5/29/13 (Op Ed) -- A 17-year-old Hickman High School student is arrested on suspicion of a felony over a sophomoric prank -- changing the name of a classmate in the yearbook from "Mastain" to "Masturbate."
Her mug shot in the Columbia Daily Tribune illustrates a story that emphasizes the prankish -- not the criminal -- nature of the misdeed. Though $40,000 in property damage is alleged, school district officials applied a cheap fix: they put stickers over the offending word.
The same month -- this May -- two victims of a mass vandalism -- Columbia residents Steve and Kathy Keithley Johnston -- took to Facebook to catch the perps, allegedly teens who staged a party that destroyed the Johnston's house.
Their social media effort got out of hand, as visitors with imperfect information posted suspicions, scolds, Tweets, gossip, rumor, innuendo, and a factoid or two.   A few weeks later the Facebook page -- Victims Against Juvenile Crimes -- came down (more about that here).

The lesson -- regardless its legal underpinnings -- seems to be that some young people get felony charges and mug shots in the newspaper for stupid pranks;  others guilty of graver offenses leave their victims frustrated enough to take justice into their own hands.   If the two stories seem inconsistent, it may be because the guiding hand of a bureaucracy is behind them.   
Part juvenile justice system, part county prosecutor (for quasi-adults age 17), the rise of this bureaucracy coincides with the declining involvement of parents, teachers, pastors, mentors, and neighborhood police officers in youth justice. 
It also coincides with a decline in respect for law enforcement among kids.   Children thrive on simplicity, consistency, and routine -- everything a bureaucracy is not. 
Not so many years ago, the legal bureaucracy took a back seat to the beat cop, who with a stern warning and a knowing smile, returned the errant ducklings to their nests.
Mom and Dad were counted on to say the toughest word in the English language: NO.   Teachers and principals administered punishment without fear of litigation or running afoul of their own bureaucracies.  Pastors and rabbis counseled.  If Sister Mary Agnes caught a whiff of cigarette or hooch coming from the boys room, heads rolled, no courts required.
It really did "take a Village" to raise a child.   But today, it takes a system.  The bureaucracy has so intruded, common sense notions of child rearing have given way to procedurals written by lawyers, case law, state statute, and local court rules.    
Counselors, prosecutors, judges, and defenders are the New Village.  Punishment involves letters, pleadings, fees, meetings, case numbers, and classroom instruction.  Gaming a system has replaced fibbing to the folks.  The beat cop can't send the kids home anymore.  He has to refer them to a juvenile officer.  Teachers and principals jeopardize their careers by meting out punishment (and I don't mean spankings). 

As it has become in many walks of daily life, the Church is sidelined.  
And parents:  We live in anxiety from age 12 to age 18, seesawing between clamping down too hard or doing too little;  worrying when the next shoe will drop;  wondering how we're possibly going to chart that future we promised our kids; all while adrift on a sea of imperfect information from the bureaucracies that have invaded our villages.

Bureaucracies by nature are secretive, which left the Keithley-Johnston affair built on imperfect information.  Parents didn't know if their children -- or age 17 quasi-adults -- were involved; the victims weren't sure, either; and police officers, on orders from the bureaucracy, kept mum.  To fill the information void, a lot of people who knew nothing weighed in.  Hence, the Facebook meltdown.

Legal bureaucracies, by their nature, grow, eventually reaching into everything.  
"The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself," Charles Dickens wrote in Bleak House. "There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it.  Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble."

But it's hard not to grumble when the law is making business for itself at the expense of our village and our youth.
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
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