Juvenile Judge, Contra Costa County
Q: Can you tell me how long you were on the bench prior to this case and
what your case load was when this case arrived?
Easton: Well, I've been on the bench in Contra Costa County for the
past 13 years. I've done both of the types of calendars of juvenile court--the
dependency child calendar where the kids are abused or neglected by their
parents, and also the delinquency calendar where the kids have committed some
sort of an offense. That could be anything from a petty theft on kind of the
low end up to murder on the high end, and we see all of those kinds of cases in
Q: Prior to this case, had you had any experience in Delinquency Court with
juveniles as young as 6?
Easton: Actually, no. I've had some that were pretty young--usually
kids who are kind of out of control; kids who were maybe getting into fights in
school on an ongoing basis, but nothing as serious as the case you are referring
to. Most of these have been older than that. I can't think of anything that
young--maybe 7 or 8, a couple of them, but very, very few.
Q: The public perception is that juveniles are getting younger and more
violent. Has that been your experience over the years?
Easton: Well, I don't really think kids have changed a whole lot. I
have over the last few years seen more young kids in delinquency court.
The threshold age has dropped from maybe 12 or 11 when I first started
and now I fairly frequently will see 10-year-olds and a few 9-year-olds who
are charged with offenses. The next question obviously is "What's causing
that, why are we seeing those sorts of changes?" And that's very hard to say
for sure. There are a lot of things I can point to that may be part of the
answer. One of those things is the increase in drug abuse, particularly crack
cocaine, and that has had a number of different kinds of effects. So at the
beginning end of our system, we have kids who are born addicted to crack
cocaine and this is a fairly new phenomenon. It wasn't that way when I
started. It's been in the last maybe five or 10 years that it's become a
serious problem. Some of those kids are born with just tremendous deficits and
have a very hard time relating to other people. They have a hard time doing
things like sharing, and they have a lot of difficulty with paying attention in
school, getting along with other kids. They tend to be somewhat more violent
than other kids. So some of those kids are now getting to be 10, 12 years old
and as they get older and are more physical and have the ability to get around,
we're seeing the results of that. So that's one aspect of it.
Another thing is that the trade in drugs has changed a lot. When I first
started, the drug of choice and the one we saw dealt most on the streets by
kids was marijuana. We'd get these cases that involved small baggies of
marijuana and the kids would sell them and, of course, that was a serious problem
but no where near as serious as the cocaine. When the kids started moving into
the cocaine trade--and that's now the more common type of case I see in terms
of drug sales--the kids have a lot of money. Some of them have $2,000 to $3,000
in their pocket when they're arrested. They might have a quarter of a gram and
a quarter of an ounce of cocaine broken down into little rocks that they sell
for $20 apiece.
So we're talking about fairly significant amounts of money and with that comes
the need to protect what you've got. Guns have become more and more accessible
to kids, and so the armament has increased significantly over the past few
years. That of course causes more kids at a younger age to get involved in
more serious offenses. When the guns started proliferating, then other kids
who might not be involved in the cocaine trade would start carrying guns to
protect themselves against the other ones. So you end up with armed conflict
where there used to be fistfights or at worst maybe a knife fight. So it's a
very serious issue and it has reduced the level of, or the threshold age, as I
Q: Does your role as juvenile judge differ at all from an adult judge and
Easton: Well, in a number of ways it does. First of all the juvenile
system, unlike the adult system, has a dual function. We are here both to
protect the community against kids who commit crimes, of course, but,
we're also there to help rehabilitate the kids and that's not one of the
missions of the adult system necessarily. But it is written into our law that
we are to be concerned with rehabilitation, and so we've got that added
From a kind of technical standpoint--not really technical but not part of our
mission statement--we hear the cases as court trials. One of the few rights
that juveniles do not have when they are accused of an offense is the right to
have a jury trial. So the judge hears the case and makes the decision whether
the person is guilty or not guilty of the offense and thus comes within the
jurisdiction of the court. So in those ways it's very different.
The other thing is that the juvenile court is a smaller operation. We have, I
think, 17 adult departments in our court, at this time, plus all of the municipal
courts, but there are only three of us who do the juvenile work, two of us
doing the delinquency work. So I get to know the families and the kids far
better than the adult judges do, and I'm able to tailor the kinds of responses
I make to cases in ways the adult courts simply can't do.
Q: You actually applied to become a juvenile judge. Why did you do
Easton: Well, one of the neat things about juvenile law is that you
actually can have a positive effect on kids. When we get older we can change,
of course. Adults change all the time, but in significant ways you can affect
a young life in a much shorter period of time and with much better results than
you can with somebody who is older. So there is a real positive feeling when
you can work with a kid and see him turn around and make something with his
life. Some of those have been pretty exciting. I had a kid once who came into
court and the department--the probation department, that is--[he] wanted me to
send him to the California youth authority. I asked the probation officer if
he'd been screened for a program in Southern California that works with pretty
tough kids--it's called Masada House. I asked that he be screened and they
accepted him down there. He went down and spent the following year-and-a-half
or two years down there. This kid, whose parents had both been convicted
felons--his whole family in fact were basically criminals and this kid
himself had a rap sheet that would make Al Capone proud--was really on the
edge of going to the youth authority. People had very little hope for him.
Well, he graduated from high school in that year-and-a-half. He finished a
regional occupational center program, and he had a job as a journeyman
machinist and he was making something like $16 or $17 an hour. Normally when
kids come off of probation when they reach 18 and they're finished with
their program, we simply take them off of probation. But in this case he came
all the way up from Los Angeles where he was working because he was so proud of
himself. Frankly I was, too. It was just a great honor to be able to come down
from the bench, which I did, and I said, "I'm so proud of you." I shook his
hand and I said, "I hope that you'll be able to give something back to other
But what I do know is in that family, the kind of legacy of dysfunction and
crime has stopped there, that he's going to raise a family that's going to have
the kinds of things they need, that the kids need to become productive
citizens. And so it's not just the one person but it's what he brings to
society. So instead of somebody who might be sucking up--I don't know what
it costs to put people in prison now, but I think it's $50,000 or $60,000 a
year --but instead of spending that kind of money, we have somebody who is a
positive influence and is going to be producing something and contributing to
society. So it's exciting to be able to have that kind of influence.
Q: We, as a society, pay a lot of lip service to the idea that our children
are our most important resources and do everything we can for the children
because they represent our future. But in terms of the juvenile justice
system, is that lip service really carried out in terms of practice, do we care
enough about the juvenile justice system and do we allocate enough resources to
Easton: We have over the past years reduced the resources we are
putting into the juvenile justice system and that's really a crime, if you ask
me. It's a terrible waste of resources to put them into locking people up at
the hind end of the system. If you'd put those resources into the front end of
the system, you can have some very positive results. The thing that bothers me
is to see the probation department, for example, having its funding cut every
year in our county, Contra Costa County, and it's not just in Contra Costa,
it's a statewide and perhaps a national problem. Our department has been cut
back to levels below those we had in 1957. We have fewer probation officers
now than we did in 1957. And I'm not talking about per capita, I'm talking
about in absolute numbers. It's a very, very difficult job for the probation
officers who are the people trying to supervise the kids on probation. So when
we try to work with a kid in the community, we don't have as much feedback, as
much supervision and as much care for the kids as we would like and the lack of
resources is a real tragedy.
Q: And how does that impact on the kids?
Easton: Well, I think that if you don't put the resources into the
system at an appropriate level, that you end up not serving the kids and so
they don't take it seriously. If they think they can get away with not
following the conditions of probation, they won't. They need to be held
accountable. And I don't mean that in a kind of nasty, punitive way; I mean
that in the way that all of us need to have limits to know what we can and
can't do and that it's serious. So if a kid is placed on probation frequently
they have problems with school attendance and behavior at school. If you're
not doing something about that, you're going to lose track of it for too long.
For example, if we have a kid that we send, maybe to the boys' ranch for a
six-month program who has not been going to school, he goes to the boys' ranch
and learns a lot and begins to get comfortable going to school. When we drop
him back into the community and if we're not watching him carefully, it's going
to be a great temptation for him to slip back into the old habits. This is not
unlike somebody who's maybe smoked for 15 years, decides to give it up and then
smells a cigarette and doesn't have the support he needs to not succumb to
that. It's a real temptation that's very strong. And if the kid stops going
to school, then what's he going to be doing? Well he's going to be back on the
streets, and he's probably going to go back into the same kind of criminal
behaviors he was in before we started with rehabilittion.
But the first place you'll start noticing that is in school attendance. So if
the probation officer isn't watching it--and often they can't, it's not
anything personal against the probation officer--sometimes six months go by
where the kid's not going to school. Then he commits another offense, and he's
back in with something more serious. Then I have to respond in a fairly harsh
way to get his attention compared to what I could do if he came back not having
attended school, maybe I could give him a couple of days in the juvenile hall
as a reminder that I mean business. And so that's one of the areas where the
lack of resources just makes a real clear difference.
Q: There are a lot of professionals who say that the earlier and the
stronger the intervention is with a child, with a young offender, that the
chances of getting him on the straight and narrow, as it were, are better. Do
you subscribe to that?
Easton: Well if you can intervene early in a kid's career--if we're
going to call it a criminal career which is perhaps one way of looking at it--you
can certainly have a much greater impact than if you wait longer. Again,
it's a matter of conditioning. If we're used to getting away with things over
time, then we will. In terms of the intervention being a strong one or a harsh
one, I don't necessarily think that is what needs to happen. It needs to be an
appropriate response. It needs to be something that gets the person's
attention and that's where knowing the kid and knowing the family is so
important. To some kids it means nothing to them if I have them spend 20
weekends doing work details on our weekend work program, they don't care about
that. They do care if they have to go to the boys' ranch. So if I know that
about a kid then I can tailor my response and that's awfully important.
The important thing is to be consistent. It's really no different than raising
children in any other context. Often times we think of delinquent kids as
being some other sort of a creature than human, they're very human. They're
very much like you or me and it's not something where you need to treat them
differently. What they often don't have in their lives is consistency. The
parents for whatever reason are unable to impose reasonable limits and stick to
them and that's kind of what I end up doing is taking that function that the
parent should be taking and enforcing some rules. What's interesting is that
with some of the parents, when they see that I do that, that it works, that the
kids continue to respect me and even like me inspite of the fact that I'm
punishing them, then they get the idea, "Hey, I can do this too." And so you
can kind of do a little training not just of the kid but of the parent as well.
So that's awfully important.
Q: Is the juvenile justice system, the delinquency part of the system,
equippped to deal with 6-year-olds?
Easton: No, young kids we have a very hard time dealing with because
the systems are not set up to treat their problems. At that age you're more
likely to have very serious family problems involved that aren't specific to
the kid and we have interventions like our boys' ranch which are set up for
kids who are 13 or 14, at the low end. Sometimes a really big and mature
12-year-old can function okay. But that's it, we can't do anything with
kids younger than that and that's our main county-run program. There are some
group homes that will take younger kids, but often times we're not the
appropriate part of the court to do that. The dependency side of the court is
far better equipped to deal with it. The social workers are trained in working
with the whole family in a much stronger way than the probation officers
generally are and the programs they have available are attuned to younger kids
where the probation programs really are not.
Q: So ten young kids under that scheme would be better off always in
dependency court than in delinquency court.
Easton: I'd say that at least nearly always and I'd hate to say that
everything is 100% one way or another but with very young kids,
yes, I'd say you can almost make that an absolute rule, that they're better off
in the dependency court than on the delinquency side.
Q: So then when they reach about 12 or 13, they can be shifted over into
Easton: We do deal with some kids who are younger, but not with the
boys' ranch kind of response. We'd be placing them in a group home. And there
are kids in that age range, say 10 to 12, who are so out of control that you
really need to have the hammer of juvenile hall hanging over their heads to
keep their attention. The group homes are sometimes unable to corral them, so
to speak, and they'll be doing pretty horrible things. You know, they're
hitting other kids or sometimes even using weapons on other kids and things
like that, so the group home needs to have some way of controlling them that
they don't have because the group homes are not locked facilities and they
aren't allowed to pen a kid up, so to speak. In other words, if they get so
out of control that they can't be handled in an open setting, then we really
need to be there at least in the background. So there are reasons to have the
delinquency side involved in some cases with kids who are maybe 10 to 12. Not
all of them, of course, but some of them...
Q: In the Supreme Court's landmark decision in the Gault Case Trial, there
are critics who say that that decision transformed juvenile court from an
informal court for children into a formal court of law where the focus is more
on procedure and legal technicalities than on the welfare of children. Do you
agree with that or not?
Easton: Well the Gault decision came down in 1967 and that actually
predates my time in law. That happened when I was in my first year in law
school, so I haven't operated in the earlier system, but I have talked to people
who have and since Gault, there is now the whole panoply of rights given to
juveniles that are given to adults with the exception, as I said earlier, of
the right to have a jury trial. But they have the right to have counsel, they
have all of the privileges against self-incrimination, all of the search and
seizure rights--everything else that adults have, kids get too. And that
certainly does slow the process down. There's a lot to be said for being able
to deal in a rapid fashion. The closer that the consequences are to the
misbehavior, the more effective it's likely to be and the less intrusive it
needs to be. So by having all of these procedures that we've established, it
delays the process and we're a fairly quick court.
Most of the kids who come through my court, if they're in custody, we will have
had a trial and a disposition in something on the order of five to six weeks
from the time they're arrested. If they're out of custody, maybe twice that
long but generally within two to three months we have the case resolved one way
or another. There are exceptions to that but that's generally true. That's
still fairly quick, but under the old system, the police officer would take the
kid directly to the court and the judge would do something. There might be a
delay of a few days if the court only met maybe once a week. The judge, the
police officer, the family and the probation officer would be the only people
who were there to talk about it. They'd discuss the situation and try to come
to a resolution informally and with people of goodwill, that's a very effective
But I'm not going to say all of the time that came out fairly, that there
weren't some judges or some police officers or other people involved in the
system who didn't behave fairly. And perhaps by imposing the Gault decision,
the results are fairer in that sense, but we've lost something in the process,
so there may be some gains in Gault but there are definitely also some losses
from it. But whichever way you look at it, we have the system we do and the
chances of it changing significantly back towards what it was before Gault are
not very great.
Q: Nobody's going to strip juveniles of those rights now.
Easton: That's correct and, in fact, if the legislature continues to add
more kinds of punitive aspects to juvenile law, like the three strikes laws, if
those apply to juvenile findings, that increases the argument that it's unfair
to disallow the right to a jury trial. And I suspect that at some point, and I
don't know where this is, but at some point along that spectrum, the Supreme
Court is going to say, at least in those kinds of cases, these kids have got a
right to have a jury trial.
The jury trial system I think would have some real negative effects on the
juvenile court. Again, it would certainly delay things further; in other
words, we couldn't do it as quickly. From a practical standpoint, it would
increase the workload significantly. Trials in my court can go fairly quickly.
The lawyers know me, they know what I know--both the defense lawyers and the
district attorneys who appear--and so they can basically talk to me kind of
in shorthand. They don't have to explain concepts of reasonable doubt to me in
great detail because they know I know that. And so we don't have as long a
process and it's quite dramatic the difference. A trial may be for sales of
crack cocaine that we were talking about earlier. And an adult case might take
three to four days, maybe five days in a jury trial in superior court. I can
hear two of those in one afternoon and be done with it. So, you need six to 10
court days to do what I can do in an afternoon in a court trial and that's
pretty significant. So if we started having trials in all of those kinds of
cases, the judicial load would be tremendously increased and we would have to
have a lot more judges and of course a lot more district attorneys and public
defenders and bailiffs and courtrooms and all the rest of it. So the costs
would be very, very significant.
Q: Are there, in your mind, recognizable factors that put a child at risk to
become a violent offender and, if so, what are they?
Easton: Well there are many factors that go into it and it's not an
easy question to deal with: What is it that causes people to be delinquent?
But certainly some of the things that we've already talked about feed into it.
One thing is the drug problem. That is a significant issue. If drugs and
alcohol are abused in the family and then by the kids by example, and that's
very frequently the effect, that can just create havoc in any family and the
kids are likely to act out.
Certainly kids who are not well developed educationally are going to have more
problems. Most of the kids I see are very far behind in school. Many of them
are reading and doing math on a first- or second-grade level when they're 16
or 17 years old. So education is certainly a very important factor.
Again I sort of alluded to the fact that some of the parents we deal with
simply are not competent parents--and I don't mean to say they don't care
about their kids because most of them love their kids deeply--but I've often
seen parents who have teenagers and they're in their mid-20s, so they had their
children when they were like 12 or 13 years old and so, certainly, they didn't
have the opportunity themselves to learn good parenting skills and so they have
not parented their kids very well. They can learn but they don't have those
skills and without them they don't do a number of things that are awfully
The factor of the breakdown of the families is another very important issue.
Some of the kids, of course, are born to young women out of wedlock and
frequently with the 13-, or 14- or 15-year-old mother that's the case and even
with other older adult women again that's more commonly the case--many of
the relationships are breaking up and the fathers simply aren't there. So
there's a lack of two parents and what that can bring to a kid. I think it all
boils down to what are the limits in the kid's life in a lot of different ways.
If the kid isn't held accountable for what he's doing as a child in little
things, like playing fairly with his friends, like going to school and so on,
he's not going to learn them in big things--it's just going to be kind of the
way it goes. If the parents don't think school is important and if somebody's
dropped out to have a child at the age of 12 or 13 or 14, clearly education
isn't going to be high in that parent's ideals of what needs to happen with the
kid and so those aren't passed on. So if school isn't important to the parent
then when the child decides in the third grade he doesn't want to go anymore,
the parent says that's fine. Or sometimes I'll have parents who will use a
12-year-old child to take care of the 6-year-old child in the family and keep
him home from school to do that and not really understand there's anything
wrong with that. It's like, you know, the school doesn't have anything to
contribute or to say.
So the kids who don't have those kinds of things in their lives just aren't
going to make it. But I think the root cause is not really any of those
specific things we've talked about--those are more symptoms of something
that's deeper and that's a sense of hopelessness and despair I see in a lot of
the kids I deal with and their families. Often times they have been families
who had really nothing go right for them for generations--you know two or
three or four generations where nobody's really been able to quite get it
together. Nobody's been fully employed during that time. There haven't been
many solid marriages. So there really aren't the role models people need on
how one can live a successful life and certainly some of these problems go back
into the racism we've suffered over the history of our country. Some of them
take other forms, but I think that sense of not being able to make it is the
base cause of all of these other issues we've talked about.
A way of injecting success and hope into a community is important. I also think
that's what works with kids. Remember earlier I talked about the kid that went
through the Masada program in Southern California. What he really got more
than anything else was somebody who believed in him, who said, "I care about
you. You're important and you can be successful. And here's how and I'm going
to help you and I'm going to make sure you stay on task." And if you've got
somebody in a kid's life who can do that, they can turn around. Certainly
you're going to lose some of them, but you can do a lot with most of the kids we
deal with. Even kids who are doing very serious offenses--it's not a
Q: Are there any kids that should be just simply written off or that you
would consider irredeemable, irretrievable?
Easton: Well, I hate to think of anybody being irredeemable or
irretrievable, but there are kids who are far more difficult to work with and
some kids who are simply too difficult to work with or too dangerous to work
with at a local level and those are kids we have to send to the youth authority
and that's a state-run institution. There are 22 or 24 institutions statewide
and we send, from our county anyway, generally serious offenders. Some other
smaller counties that don't have as many resources as we do--if you can
imagine that, I talked about how much the resources have been cut back- but
there are some counties that have no local facilities at all and so they might
send lighter weight kids to the youth authority than we would. But for the
most part the kids we send are those we really don't think we can deal with and
not all of them are irredeemable either. The youth authority has had some
really positive impact on some kids' lives, but it is at a level where we really
can't do anything at our level anymore and have to turn those over to the
And then certainly there are people who are utterly psychotic, who are simply
never going to get better no matter what you do with them. Fortunately, it's a
very tiny percentage of people. Most people are far more trainable and
malleable than that.
Q: Can you tell me what the practical difference is in having a child tried
on a criminal charge as opposed to being tried in dependency court?
Easton: Well, the difference between the two sides of the court--the
dependency and the delinquency side--is that in the deliquency side, the kid
is charged with committing what would be a criminal offense if he were an adult
and we have a petition that charges that and the proof standards are the same
as they would be in an adult court. With the kid who's been abused or
neglected, we're looking at him not as being the perpetrator of something bad,
but as being the victim of something bad in his life and that's usually going
to be either an inadequate or maybe an evil family that's really intentionally
harming him. The forms of abuse are many. The kids can be affected by
substance abuse by parents. They can be the victims of physical abuse, being
beaten up or burned or scalded by parents or somebody else taking that position
in their lives. They can be sexually abused and if kids go through those sorts
of things, they're going to act that back out. That's going to have a
significant impact on how they are when they get older and there's simply no
getting around that unless you intervene in an appropriate way at an early
So that difference really is the focus. We're looking more at the kid as a
victim as opposed to being an offender. Now when they start acting out from
having been abused or neglected, some of those are going to be crimes, of
course. So it becomes kind of a fuzzy line. It sounds real clear: "Well
this must be a dependent child and that must be a delinquent child." But the
fact is that with most of them, there's going to be some significant crossover
and if the social worker is looking at it he'll say, "Well, this kid's just
acting out" and not see it as something where the kid needs to be held
responsible; where the probation officer might say, "This kid's committed an
offense, let's do something about it" and might not be as attuned to treating
the kid and the family as a unit to try to bring more healing of the whole
unit. So it's hard to answer the question: "Does the kid belong one place or
another?" As we discussed earlier, age certainly is a big factor and the kids
acting out when they do start acting out and what way that's coming across and
how much insight the kid has and what sorts of programs are available to treat
it, depending upon a particular behavior, would make a lot of difference of
Q: And when the lines are fuzzy, who makes the decisions as to whether the
kid should be treated as an offender or a victim of abuse?
Easton: Well, those decisions about who's going to be charged with an
offense and who's going to go into the dependency side of the court happen by a
number of different factors. First is going to be the police officer. If the
police officer who takes the original report--you know maybe a fire's been
started by a young child, just as an example--the police officer is going to
say to himself, "Now what am I going to do with this kid? I noticed when I
went to his home that there was a lot of disruption in the house. There were
dirty clothes all over the place. There was perhaps no food in the
refrigerator. The plumbing didn't work. The parents seemed to be stoned or
they weren't there. And so I thought as a police officer that this kid really
needs to be helped by CPS, by the protective services part and so that's who
I'm going to call." So instead of referring it to the district attorney, he
might call the protective service worker who would come out, look at the house
and start the process to have the child brought into the dependency side of the
On the other hand, if the police officer saw this as a kid who is just out of
control and wasn't looking at other factors or didn't see them--maybe they
weren't there or they weren't real visible to him, or the kid was a little
older--then he might say, "This looks like a criminal offense and so I'm
going to send this not to the social worker but to the probation department."
And the probation officer, once he's received the police report, is required to
turn it over to the district attorney. And then the district attorney has to
make a decision and the person who's making those decisions can decide: "This
is really not an appropriate case for the delinquency side of the court and I'm
going to refer it back to the social services department." So he has that
option or he can say this is something that we should deal with on the
delinquency side of the court, file a petition, and then bring it into my court
because I'm at this point doing mostly delinquency cases.
So that would get it in. So any of those people can affect how that decision
is made and then once it gets into court, then the court, after appropriate
proceedings, can make a decision on which forum it should be in.
Q: Meaning ultimately you can decide.
Q: Whether the child is treated as an offender or as a victim.
Q: That's a difficult decision?
Easton: That can be, usually not. Usually it's fairly clear whether
the kid should be in dependency court or in delinquency court. Sometimes it's
a close call and sometimes we actually have both systems working at one time.
That's not unheard of. It's rare but it's not unheard of. As
I was saying earlier if you've got a kid who's acting out in the latency
age of maybe 9, 10 or 11 years old and needs to have the threat of juvenile
hall for the group home placement or the social worker to keep reasonable
control over his behavior, then we might sit in the background with probation.
And the kid knows that hammer's there. But in terms of the actual services and
treatment, social services might be more appropriate and so we keep both
agencies involved--maybe one kind of in the background and the other taking
primary responsibility. So it's a system that's flexible enough to allow us to
do a whole lot of different things on an individual case by case basis. We
don't have to do one particular thiing.
Q: Is it usual to have a hearing into a child's competency?
Easton: We have had very few cases that dealt with a child's competency
to stand trial to be before the court. That is not a common thing to have
happen. It's not utterly unheard of but it's quite rare. Kids who have
questions about their mental abilities have usually been older kids, teenagers
who have committed some kind of an offense that it turns out their mental
functioning is so low they really can't understand what's going on or they're
so crazy basically that they can't tell the difference between right and wrong
within the standards. And so in those kinds of cases we get into different
sorts of competency issues. Some of these get very complex. There's a lot of
different codes that are involved but the issue is rarely brought with a very
young child, like a six-year-old would be a very rare instance.
Q: Because it's so rare period.
Easton: Yes, it is very rare to see a kid that young in court, in the
Q: Philosophically, do you think any 6-year-old child is competent to
Easton: I can't really answer that question. I can think of kids who
probably could fit the definitions required to be competent at a very young age
like that but most of those kids come from families that have strong values and
they have those abilities to make judgments the average 6-year-old would not
have. But those same abilities probably would keep them from being involved in
anything that would remotely bring them before the court. Not to say it isn't
possible but it would be one of those things I'd be very surprised to see,
shall we say.
Q: I was wondering whether our tolerance for juvenile crime and violent
juvenile crime has changed over the 25 years so that there was no public outcry
in the so-called "crucifixion murder" case in San Francisco, nobody manning the
barricades saying, "Send these 10-year-old and seven-year-old brothers off to
the nearest juvenile hall" where in this recent case there clearly was that
kind of sentiment about.
Easton: I think that in the recent past that we've had significant
changes as a society in our attitude towards juvenile offenders. Part of it is
because of the increased violence level and the fact there are more guns used.
The juvenile murder rate hit a terribly high level a few years ago in our
county, just two or three years ago, which was quite frightening. And those
sorts of offenses of course draw the public attention to those issues and
people understandably want something to happen: "Let's take care of the
problem". Sometimes the responses may not be the right ones but the desire to
deal with it is important. So because of the increased levels of violence, the
fact that some of the violence is being committed by younger and younger kids,
I think that has a lot to do with the public attitude towards it. The other
aspect that's important is that if a case is filed in the dependency side of
the court, it is a closed proceeding and no news media can be allowed in and
the case of the more serious types of offenses--the so-called 707B offenses,
that stands for the welfare and institutions code that lists certain of the
serious offenses and those would be things like murder, any armed offense,
attempted murder, rape, mayhem and there's a whole laundry list of them which
anybody can read if they want to take the time to look at the code section--but
if the offense is charged under one of those, then it's an open proceeding.
It doesn't say anything about how old the juvenile is, but if one of those
offenses is charged, it's an open proceeding and the press as well as the
public have a right to be in the courtroom while those cases are being heard.
And so that's another possible distinction.
Q: And is that a good thing allowing the press in for those kind of
Easton: Is it a good idea to have the press in for 707B offenses?
That's an interesting question. I don't know. I mean, I can see arguments on
both sides of the issue and if you're dealing with a kid who's 15- or
16-years-old who's committed a serious offense, maybe the public should have a
right to be in there and know about it. Perhaps some kind of reasonable age
limits on those sorts of issues would be appropriate. That's, of course, a
decision for the legislature to make and not for the court but from a policy
standpoint, that might be a reasonable way to deal with the issue.
Q: So the kids below a certain age would not be subjected to that sort of
Easton: The law in terms of--you were asking about competence earlier
and the law in California state that children who are under the age of 14 are
presumed not to be competent to commit an offense, to form the necessary mental
state to commit a crime. There's no lower end to that, but obviously the
younger the child is, the stronger that presumption is that it wouldn't take
very much to convince me that a 13-year-old knew the difference between right
and wrong and was culpable of a criminal offense. But with a younger child it
becomes increasingly more difficult to persuade the court and that's how it
ought to be.
At common law, that is in England, there used to be an absolute lower limit of
seven years, that's not in our law. But in terms of talking about news
coverage perhaps since we are looking at 14 as being a cut-off and below that
we've got the presumptions that I just discussed, you know that might be a
sensible age to say there's no news coverage, even in a 707B offense below that
age. Again that's, as I say, not something I can decide but it wouldn't be
unreasonable in my view.