Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bad Kids and Teenage Criminals

by Gina Sestak

My first writing job was for the National Center for Juvenile Justice. I fell into that job by accident while attending law school. During the school year, I was taking odd jobs and selling blood plasma to survive -- I'll blog about that sometime in the future. One of my fellow students noticed the tracks (needle marks) on my arms and, when I had explained that no, I was not a junkie, he helped me to get a part-time research position where he was working.

The National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) had an office in Pitt Law School at that time. I began as one of several research assistants on a project that compared state laws on juvenile offenders. There are three categories of offenses that can be committed by a juvenile - status offenses, delinquent acts, and crimes.

A status offense is an act that is only wrongful because of the age of its perpetator. Although the specific parameters of what constitutes a status offense differs from state to state, status offenses typically include things like truancy, curfew violation, drinking alcohol, etc.

A delinquent act usually would be considered a crime if committed by an adult, and includes things like shoplifting, robbery, burglary, etc.

Some states also provide that, for serious offenses such murder, a juvenile can be treated as an adult criminal. In some states, this is automatic while in others a juvenile court judge must hold a hearing before making the decision to send a specific case to adult court.

Another category, dependency, is usually reserved for children who are abused, neglected, or otherwise without proper parental care or supervision.

Although these categories appear to be clear, states differed widely about what specific acts fell within each category. For example, at that time (late 1970s) in Pennsylvania, anyone over the age of 10 who killed someone could be charged with murder as an adult. Pennsylvania also had no status offense category. Kids who committed status offense-type acts could be considered either dependent or delinquent -- sometimes going from category one to another. I later worked on an appellate brief in the case of a teenage girl who had been found dependent (i.e., without proper parental supervision) due to truancy. The juvenile court judge ordered her to go to school. When she continue to skip, he adjudicated her delinquent for violation of a court order.

The result of all that research was my first book, a monograph Juvenile Court Jurisdiction Over Children's Conduct: A Statutes Analysis, by John L. Hutzler and Regina Marie Sestak, published by NCJJ in 1977.

I continued to work for NCJJ after the research and book were completed, serving as Assistant Editor on the Juvenile Court Digest, a monthly publication of the National Council of Juvenile Court Judges. A few other students employees and I would prepare summaries of every state or federal court decision relevant to juvenile law issued within a given month, then I would edit the summaries for publication.

I continued to work part-time for NCJJ until I took the bar exam. Between that and other part-time and temporary positions, I almost never had to sell blood plasma again.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned a lot about crime, delinquency, status offenses, and dependency.

I learned to edit text that I had not written myself.

I learned to write according to a set format.

Most of all, I learned that jobs can sometimes be intellectually stimulating as well as fun.


Tory said...

A really interesting post, Gina. Sounds so much better than selling plasma!

Joyce said...

I've also seen parents who ask our juvenile officer to request a dependency hearing because they don't want to deal with their kids anymore. These are usually the same parents who call the police and say, "My kid won't listen to me."

Anonymous said...

Is it any wonder you ended up writing crime fiction, Gina? What a great job for research.