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Karen Shepard

Tough love in juvenile court

By Karen Shepard
March 1, 2010

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DELINQUENCY DAY in Pittsfield’s Berkshire Juvenile Court. It’s 9:15 and Judge Judith Locke is already impatient. One boy has owed fees forever. “Do the math,’’ she says. “It’s not even 10 cents a day. It’s outrageous.’’

The bailiff tells the boy to take his hands out of his pockets. The boy, affectless, complies. His phone rings. Judge Locke tells him to leave the room and read the sign outside. He says he knows: no cell phones. She lowers her voice: go read it anyway.

Over 40 minutes, she’ll give the boy, his father, or the defense mini-exhortations on respect, responsibility, future plans. She’ll suggest the best way to take Adderall. She’ll praise his penmanship. She knows he’s angry, and he’s entitled to his feelings, but how will he deal with them? He’s welcome to come relate the successes she knows he’ll have.

Case No. 7: tiny, sporting Beatles’ hair and a tie. Dwarfed by his leather jacket. He’s already, like most children here, in the custody of Youth Services. He left a note in another kid’s sock drawer saying he was going to slit the boy’s throat.

Judge Locke knows the boy. She says that she really needs him to behave. He stares. “Yes, Your Honor,’’ she prompts. “Yes, Your Honor,’’ he repeats.

No. 3 towers over his mother. He was on PCP - angel dust - when arrested on his eighth assault charge. Bail is $1,000. The defense hopes for something lower, arguing that the boy wants treatment.

Judge Locke reminds counsel that she’s acutely aware of his history. She praises the boy for his respectful behavior. She asks if Mother is still sober. Mother smiles and says quietly, “Yes, I am.’’

Judge Locke retains the $1,000 bail and DYS custody.

His tiny mother hugs her giant handcuffed son. “Bye, baby,’’ she says. Judge Locke wishes them both luck.

The judge tells No. 12 that the court rarely sees both foster and biological parents together. “That tells me you have a lot of people who want to see you do well.’’

Judge Locke has been an associate justice of the Juvenile Court Circuit for a decade and an attorney for years before that. Her endurance and skill may be founded in her unusual mix of empathy and toughness. Cases begin with a round of “Good mornings.’’ Stuffed animals for younger children fill a file cabinet. Her colloquies are meticulous, ensuring that defense has advised, and children have understood. She criticizes and praises. Her eyes are attentive; her hair is swept back. Everything about her says: I want to make myself clear.

She’s feeling particularly emotional today because of the recent South Hadley tragedy. In mid-January, a girl, the target of relentless bullying, hanged herself.

No. 23 strikes Judge Locke as eerily similar. Two sisters thinking another girl was gossiping about them, forced their way into her house, and beat her. She locked herself behind French doors and called 911. The sisters broke the glass, continued attacking, and fled.

Judge Locke tears up as she admonishes them. She’s haunted by that case, she says. Just haunted.

The days she’s been unable to save someone from bad decision-making, she goes home thinking of better ways to make a living.

But then there are cases like Evan. Over several years, she addressed his addiction and mental health issues. In 2007, he left his treatment center and ended up homeless, searching for drugs. Having violated probation, he was brought before her yet again. She held him without bail and committed him to DYS. Christmas 2009: Evan comes to tell her that he’s sober, works with at-risk kids and at the Jiminy Peak ski area, attends community college, and is transferring to UMass’s School of Business. He smiles and vows that his only future visits to court will be for updates on his progress. Those are the cases the judge hangs onto.

Near day’s end, she announces that one of the attorneys is leaving early. She’s getting married. Everyone applauds. Counsel blushes and says the judge may be jinxing her.

Judge Locke says, “Well, if I have, you know where to find me.’’

Counsel leaves; the next case is called. Judge Locke wishes everyone a good afternoon.

Karen Shepard, a guest columnist, teaches at Williams College. Her most recent novel is “Don’t I Know You?’’

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