Tough Love in Juvenile Court
Judge Jonathan Price works to rehabilitate Monterey County’s youth.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
An ashamed-looking teenager shuffles into Judge Jonathan Price’s courtroom wearing bright orange sandals. The 16-year-old boy settles into a wooden chair next to his cheerless mom, as well as his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Lorraine Faherty. The teen just finished a stint in Juvenile Hall for stealing a car and allegedly has gang ties – but Price sees promise.
From his perch above the defendant, the thick-set juvenile court judge scans a probation report through reading glasses. Price notes the teen’s GPA has risen to 3.3, after failing classes last semester, before asking how a smart kid like him ended up in juvenile court.
“I wasn’t thinking,” the boy replies humbly.
Price responds harshly: “How do we know it’s not going to happen again?”
The judge then asks the mother if her son is doing anything to indicate he belongs to a gang. Through a Spanish translator she says she doesn’t know. Price says her son is a member of a Sureño street gang, which explains why he wears a lot of blue clothing. Price refers the teen to gang intervention organization California Youth Outreach.
“The one thing we need to impress on you is you have all sorts of potential,” Price says. “Anyone that can go from an all failure to a B-plus grade has all kinds of potential.”
Price then puts a face on the boy’s crime, asking what his mother did to deserve the pain of having her son locked up. The judge asks the teen to choose between the gang and his family: “Do you want to keep fighting on colors and numbers, or do you want to use your gifts, your intelligence, to get good grades, maybe get a scholarship, maybe sit up here one day? It’s your choice.”
Finally, Price tells the kid to face his mom and promise her he’ll go to school and find new friends – not gang-bangers. The youngster pledges to stay out of trouble as part of his two-year probation term. At the close of the hearing, Price tells the mom to pick up the phone if her son doesn’t keep his promises.
For the past five years, Judge Price has played a critical role in arbitrating paths of rehabilitation for Monterey County’s young criminals. While presiding over the confidential and sensitive juvenile proceedings, attorneys and youth advocates say he brings the right blend of compassion and tough talk to the bench.
“He’s got a personality that deals well with these young people,” says retired Judge John Phillips, who founded Rancho Cielo, an intervention program. “He can scare the hell out of them. But when they need a comforting hand, he can be there for it.”
Faherty, who has been practicing juvenile criminal law locally since 1986, says Price is one of the best juvenile judges the county has had. “He gets very involved with the youngsters,” she says. “He knows them after a while. He knows the family dynamics. He wants them to succeed.”
On the bench since 1989, Price says juvenile court was a natural progression after implementing the county’s first Proposition 36 court in 2001. Prop. 36 gives certain drug-possession offenders treatment instead of incarceration – the overarching hallmark of juvenile law.
“You have young people here,” Price says. “Maybe some of them come here through no fault of their own because their parents are not good role models and they are left to the gangs.”
Sitting in his office in front of a wall of law books, Price takes out a typical rap sheet for a kid who brought a knife to school. The boy told authorities he joined a gang because the members love and respect him more than his parents.
“The gang gives them a moniker, which becomes a new name,” Price says, adding that this provides identity, an important ingredient for an adolescent.
While gang involvement is a reoccurring factor in the average of 30 cases he hears each day, Price says delinquent behavior is symptomatic. “My job is to look beyond the symptoms I am seeing… to find out what the root causes are and then deal with the root causes,” he says. A special court called Collaborative Action Linking Adolescents helps pinpoint the reasons beyond the crime, whether it’s emotional problems, mental illness or lack of family communication.
If his courtroom were a school, Price would be the kind-hearted principal. He receives plenty of guidance from probation officers, public defenders and district attorneys, but the judge has final say over whether a kid goes home or gets locked up.
“You should be able to assist [juveniles] in being better when they are done with you,” Price says, adding one caveat: “If they don’t want to change, you have to be able to deal with that, too.”
Though nearing retirement at age 62, Price doesn’t seem to be slowing down. He recently helped start the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, a collaborative of youth-service, law-enforcement, education, recreation and business stakeholders strategizing ways to cure the county’s gang epidemic.
On March 6, CASP members set goals to create a safe summer in Salinas, from identifying 250 jobs for youth to doubling participation in summer reading programs. With enough positive alternatives, Price hopes fewer kids – like the soft-spoken car thief – will end up in his courtroom.