Attorney Sandra Simkins has accomplished much since her days as assistant chief of the juvenile unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, where she was respected as a tenacious advocate for children sucked into the abyss of the juvenile justice system.
Most of the worst fallout after a juvenile arrest, she learned while there, happened because a child had no legal representation - a situation that happens far more frequently in this country than you'd believe. In some states, 90 percent of children charged with a crime move through the entire judicial process without ever receiving legal advice.
Without access to a competent lawyer, an arrest can change a child's life forever.
Simkins left the Defender Association three years ago to join the faculty at Rutgers University, where she created the Children’s Justice Clinic and helped snag a coveted MacArthur Foundation grant to study the legal defense of indigent juveniles and.
Now, she has published her first book: When Kids Get Arrested: What Every Adult Should Know (Rutgers University Press, 2009).
(Full disclosure: my name appears in the book's long list of acknowledgments. The inclusion is flattering, but unnecessary. All I did was provide encouragement, early on, when Simkins was considering whether to write this important book.)
When Kids Get Arrested is a manual that every parent, guardian or worried bystander ought to read, whether they think the child they love is headed for trouble or not. Because, Simkins knows from having defended thousands of children, even "good" kids can find themselves at the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people.
And if they - and you - don’t know their rights before they open their mouths to speak to the police, the negative and often unwarranted consequences could last a lifetime.
And that's true no matter which tax bracket or Zip code a kid hails from, says Simkins, whose simple-to-read book is the first to explain, in clear detail, what can and/or will happen to a child from the moment he or she is detained to the time the case is resolved (and "resolved" doesn't always mean its impact is over).
Even if you're not inclined to buy the book, at least take five minutes to read here Simkins' "Top Ten Tips: What Every Adult Should Know to Protect A Child From the Juvenile Justice System."
You never know when you and your kid will need them.
1. Don't ever allow the police to question a child without a lawyer present.
2. Don't ever encourage a child to waive the right to a lawyer.
3. Juvenile records count: they do not disappear when a child turns 18.
4. Make sure you understand how the juvenile court deal will follow the child into the future. There are many long-term, hidden consequences of juvenile court involvement.
5. Children who get probation have not "beaten" the case. Assist your child in competing all the terms of probation as quickly as possible. And make sure you pay off all the restitution.
6. Be really worried if:
a. The child is being sent to adult court - adult prison is not good for children.
b. The child is charged with any type of sexual offense - a cild labeled a sexual offender may be subject to lifetime registration and civil commitment.
7. Stay in touch with children who are sent to a residential placement and ask questions to make sure they are safe.
8. Race matters: minority children are treated more harshly at every stage of the court process.
9. Avoid the juvenile justice system if you can - it has become much more punitive since the mid-1990s and is rarely a good solution to school problems, mental-health issues or a defiant daughter.
10. Talk to your child(ren) in advance about what to do in case they are stopped by police.