About a month ago I went to my first Daddy-Daughter Dance. My daughter is six and in kindergarten. For where I am in my life, this dance was considered a big night out. My daughter is still at a point where dancing and hanging out with her Dad is fun and maybe even cool. I am very cognizant that my days are numbered. But we danced, ate pizza, and sang along with the music. (By the way, is it just me, or is the current state of pop music actually kind of awesome? Probably just me.) Anyway, I had a fantastic time.
Let me tell you a little bit about my daughter. She is truly the kindest, most thoughtful person I know. She genuinely cares about other people, and their feelings. Even when she gets mad at her brother, you can see she immediately regrets and feels awful about any name she calls him (even though he couldn’t care less). She also is a rule follower. I think the rule following and the kindness go together. She doesn’t want to rock the boat because she doesn’t want to upset anyone.
Back to the dance. While my daughter is well-liked by everyone in her class, she is part of a group of four girls that are close friends. Her teacher calls them the Core Four. The Core Four were all at the dance with their Dads, and they spent all of their time together. And as I watched the Core Four, I could see clear signs of the group dynamic at play. The Core Four has a clear leader that is not my daughter. Almost exclusively, it was the leader who would make decisions on where they would dance, or when they would go eat pizza, or have their photos taken. The other three followed her lead.
Now, sometimes the leader would have a more controversial idea. It might have been crawling to the floor as part of a dance move, or asking one of the Dads some sort of silly question. And I’d watch my daughter when something like this would happen. She’d kind of give me a quick glance and a half-smile, like she was checking to see if I fundamentally disapproved, while almost simultaneously following suit. But the quick glance really was just a millisecond, and her clear instinct was to just follow her leader.
I keep thinking about this dynamic as questions of juvenile crime and punishment continue to be grappled with both in the criminal justice world and in the public consciousness. In the March edition of the great criminal defense periodical The Champion, an issue which is entirely devoted to juvenile justice (you must be a member to see more than a summary of the articles, and, full disclosure, I have an article in the issue), my friend Maureen Pacheco writes: “These are historic times in the development of law pertaining to juveniles. . . . Advocates are pushing the courts and legislatures to recognize that young people are capable of change and society should never give up on them.” As part of its Retro Report series, The New York Times put together a tremendous 10-minute documentary revisiting “The ‘Superpredator’ Scare,” an early 1990s mythology that forecasted a wave of immoral, ruthless juveniles committing heinous crimes, a prediction that led to many of our current get-tough-on-crime policies and sentencing many young people to a lifetime of imprisonment. Another friend, John Maki, recently and compellingly argued that It’s Time to Abolish Automatic Transfer of juveniles to adult court.
So, what does a kindergarten dance and my daughter dancing on the floor with her friends or asking a silly question have to do with juvenile justice? Maybe nothing, but maybe something. As I witnessed with my own eyes these kindergarten group dynamics and some very, very innocuous peer pressure, the juvenile justice reform movement resonated with me in a way it never had. If my six-year-old daughter could be so easily talked into dancing on the floor when she was uncertain if Daddy would think it was okay, is it that ridiculous to think she could be talked into something slightly worse, something a little riskier, or something maybe even criminal when she is 11? Or 13? Or 15? Don’t the peer pressures get even worse? Aren’t the self-doubt and lack of confidence at an all-time high in adolescence and early teens? Could even my sweet daughter, who hates to rock the boat, find herself in such a situation?
While I’ve always believed in the progressive juvenile justice reforms many of my colleagues at the Children and Family Justice Center fight for on a daily basis, I feel like I’m beginning to understand it in a new way. So when I first read, for example, about the felony arrest of a 13-year-old boy for throwing a snowball at a police officer, I thought it was incredibly stupid. But when I read a follow-up report about the case after the Daddy-Daughter Dance, the true and utter ridiculousness of the charges became that much more clear to me. How many young people wouldn’t respond to fifteen peers daring them to throw a snowball at a car, even a police car? A few years from now, it very well could be my daughter on the receiving end of that dare. I imagine even someone with her genuine kindness – who doesn’t want to hurt anyone – could easily be so persuaded.
And thinking about these issues with a more traditional wrongful conviction lens, I have the same thoughts. While I have studied and written repeatedly about how suggestible youth are and how susceptible they are to false confession during police questioning (see, for example, my article in The Champion), I am starting to get more clarity about how truly easy it would be for a police officer to persuade a young person to sign on with a false narrative. I have one case where my teenage client (teenager1) is serving life in prison because teenager2 was persuaded by police to tell a story: Eight months after teenager2 initially admitted his own involvement in throwing rocks at a car that subsequently led to teenager3 discharging a gun, teenager2 told a supplemental story that this time included teenager1 (my client) encouraging the group to go for it and throw those rocks. During this supplemental story, my client wasn’t even there – the encouragement was an hour earlier.
It has really hit me of late how absolutely simple it would be to persuade teenager2 to tell that false story – how could he ever think that doing so would land my client in prison for life? And even if I’m wrong – and I don’t think I am – and my client (teenager1) did really tell that group to throw those rocks, the true absurdity that this singular act by an adolescent boy is even criminal, let alone could land him in prison for life, has struck me in a new way since that fateful Daddy-Daughter Dance.