Juvenile Injustice – Appeal filed on behalf of John Staley III in U.S. District Court of Appeals, Franklin County, Ohio on August 3, 2018
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa
“Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”
— John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States
“A child is a person who is going to carry on what you have started…the fate of humanity is in his hands.”
— Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States
I learned a long time ago not to get caught up in politics and the popular causes. We don’t take on the “cause” of criminal defense unless we have to. We don’t “fight” the system unless we have to. We don’t do exactly what the text books say (or what everyone expects us to do) unless we have to.
We represent people, not causes. That means we care about our clients, not some cause that society thinks is right or wrong. Causes come and go. They aren’t constant. They change to meet the wants of the people behind them. Our clients at Yavitch & Palmer are individuals with individual problems, not causes. And anyone who has sat with us in our conference room knows that we want to figure out our client’s unique problems and focus on that solution. That takes time, effort, and understanding.
But sometimes we encounter a problem that strikes a chord with a politically popular (or unpopular) cause. That is where things get tricky. Then we must navigate through a mine field of politics, media, and outcry for a cause.
And that is what happened in the case of Jack Staley.
Over the years, we have represented kids accused of all sorts of juvenile misconduct. We had a kid who phoned in a bomb threat at school. We had a kid threatening harm to fellow students or teachers. We even had a kid who conspired with a friend to storm the police department of his small town, seize the arsenal of guns, and shoot up the town via an elaborate (and probably impossible) plot.
Those were seemingly normal kids with normal parents with normal suburban lives. They all got caught somehow and landed in juvenile court. They received the juvenile brand of justice. That means they met a probation officer, who was stern, strict, and probably scary (at first). They experienced counseling. They were tasked with community service. They might have even spent some time in the DH (juvenile detention hall). Their lives and problems were exposed. Whatever family issues they were fighting emerged to the surface. They were given every opportunity to get back on the right track. And when they were done, the scary probation officer became a “big brother” figure. They may have even shared their experiences with others in “teen court.” And their families learned how to cope and function.
When their cases closed in juvenile court, I never heard from those kids again. I can’t say I know what happened to them or where they are now. But I know they never called back for criminal help. I never saw their names on any court docket. And I never heard a peep from their families.
They probably have their own lives with jobs, families, and the typical adult problems. They probably look at their juvenile problems as just that–juvenile. Their bomb threats, shooting conspiracies, and the like are distant memories and stories of their youth.
I used to wonder what would happen to those kids now, after Columbine and Sandy Hook and the like. After Jack Staley’s case, I don’t have to wonder anymore. The political machine would grab those cases, treat them like “causes,” and ignore the individual.
That’s the problem with cause prosecutions and cause criminal defense. The individual gets shuffled aside in the midst of the hue and cry.
The cause didn’t care if Jack Staley could be helped in juvenile court. It didn’t care that therapy and rehabilitation would get him back on track. And the cause paid no attention to the experts who cautioned against adult prison for an impressionable youth.
Under the guise of “protecting the public,” the cause really wanted something else. It wanted punishment and vengeance—terms that wouldn’t normally have a place in our juvenile system. The cause wanted to “punish him in adult court.”
And that’s just what the system did. Against all caution of renowned experts (whose opinions wouldn’t be questioned or disregarded in any other setting), the cause sent Jack Staley to adult court and eventually prison.
The quotes above are telling. The message sent to our future was to disregard our kids if they have gone astray and forget about helping them get back on track. Send them to the future with no tools to change, no rehabilitation, and no positive guidance. Ironically, in this regard, Jack’s case aligned with the one cause we all champion—guide and teach our kids to become productive, successful adults. But that cause didn’t seem to matter when it should have mattered the most.
We can’t teach kids to be successful by sending them to hang with adults who are, by very definition, unproductive and unsuccessful (in prison). According to some anonymous Internet quote, “Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate.” The system failed Jack Staley in that regard. The system gave Jack nothing great to imitate—just adult prison.
“He deserved it!”
“Keep us safe!”
“He should get more time!”
The rhetoric of the hue and cry is loud and powerful. But this is dangerously short-sighted. If safety is the concern, get the child away from unsafe influences and teach him to be safe. If punishment is the concern, take action at home, before your kids find themselves in bigger trouble. Juvenile court is the place for kids who can be helped. It’s not always popular to do the right thing, but it’s always right.
Rehabilitation for the same offenses worked 15 years ago, and it would have worked with Jack Staley. Not all kids are amenable to rehabilitation and treatment in the juvenile system. But by every standard we know, Jack was. The juvenile court nonetheless decided otherwise and sent Jack to adult court rather than taking the responsibility for meaningful rehabilitation.
We now challenge the legality of that decision in the Court of Appeals. Hopefully there’s still time to do what is right and necessary to treat this individual, not champion some cause. And we might just find that the right thing will align itself with the one cause we all believe in—the future adulthood of our children.
John Staley Appellate Brief