U. of C. law professor spearheads effort to find solutions for problem that plagues city’s teens
Herschella Conyers is an attorney who, along with several judges, recently invited a bunch of people to the University of Chicago to talk about violence and the growing number of teens getting entangled in the criminal justice system.
Typically, these types of gatherings are organized by social workers, community activists, educators, politicians or even clergy. What was unique about this one is that it was put on by African-American judges and legal experts who often interact with youth at a point when interventions — if there had been any — have failed.
A clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School, Conyers was a public defender from 1986 to 1993. She would be the first to tell you that many of the children she represents have led complicated lives. In the 1990s, she represented one of the two boys convicted of dropping 5-year-old Eric Morse to his death from a Chicago Housing Authority high-rise.
In this edited conversation, I started by asking Conyers why “Living Like We’re Bulletproof: The Public Health Crises of Youth Trauma & Violence” was convened:
A: Several of us started talking about this last year, but when 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was killed and President Obama came to town earlier this year, it nudged us to get it done. We thought maybe we could get more people to engage because the news was on the front page. We want to let people know they have to engage every day and not just the day of the headlines.
Herschella Conyers is an attorney who defends young people. She recently gathered black legal experts to discuss violence and how to help teens. (Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune / May10, 2013)
Q: How did you decide who would participate in the symposium?
A: We wanted people who play a role in guiding and helping our youth: educators, faith-based and community-based leaders, public health advocates, including people who care for mental health needs. I think too many people in poor black communities are still suspicious of mental illness, and that’s why mental health services are often underutilized. A lot of times, kids don’t get help until they wind up in the juvenile justice system, and by then it gets more and more difficult to help.
Q: The kids you’re trying to reach aren’t the ones involved in, say, retail theft.
A: No. You can tell many of those kids: ‘Cut it out and don’t come back in this courtroom.’ And when they have a good support system at home, they’re good to go. We’re looking at kids who are at genuine risk of doing harm to themselves or to others. They are the ones who need our attention in the churches, the schools, the courtrooms and who desperately need mental health services.
Q: The Criminal Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law Schooland the Illinois Judicial Council co-sponsored the event. The council is made up of African-American jurists. Why is it important for black judges and attorneys to do this?
A: I’ve represented kids accused of some really bad crimes. For years, my goal has been to put myself out of work. Judge Sybil Thomas and Judge Marilyn Johnson, the symposium’s co-chairs, work in child protective services. The Illinois Judicial Council wanted to address youth violence because we all see the consequences.
By the time a 15-year-old boy has been involved in armed robbery, we have missed opportunities to intervene without being unnecessarily punitive. It’s difficult to say to a kid, ‘I’m going to help you,’ when what you’re doing feels like punishment to him. It’s hard to get him to buy in. Let’s get to him before he has to have a probation officer.
Q: When judges and attorneys get involved like this, do they risk not being viewed as impartial?
A: I don’t think so. I’m going to represent my clients zealously, and that is not in conflict with me wanting to end violence. I don’t think a thoughtful judge would feel unduly conflicted about wanting to end violence and making the criminal juvenile justice system more effective and more just.
Q: Much of this advocacy should start in the home, but many of these kids have horrendous home lives.
A: Some of these kids are living in homes where, if I were them, I’d probably rather hang out on a corner too. But the home that a child lives in is not the child’s fault. We need parent training in high school. We need to teach people how to convey values and how to discipline appropriately. I’m a big proponent of personal responsibility and accountability, but you can’t fail kids day in and day out and then tell them to man up.
Q: Is there anything that shocks you about your clients?
A: I’m struck by how often my clients come to court, and I realize they’re just plain hungry. That doesn’t diminish what they’re accused of doing, but it tells you a lot.
I’m stunned by how unable my clients, at age 13 and 14, are to say what they’re going to do when they grow up. When I ask them, I’m like: ‘Tell me something, even if it’s pie-in-the-sky.’ To be absolutely blank about your future is terrible. For most of us, it’s the dream that carried us through. When I ask kids, ‘What do you like about yourself?’ For them to sit there for five minutes in silence is breathtaking.
Kids don’t come to this dull acceptance naturally.
Q: Fixing this is complex and long-term.
A: We have to shift the focus and look at this as a social issue rather than solely a criminal justice issue. If we start to understand the stressors that accompany adolescents, especially the ones in poor communities, we will start to think about these things differently.
Fortunately most of our kids will get by and stay out of the system, but that’s such an incredibly low bar. The point is, how can we help systems help our kids thrive?