The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Sept. 7 exposé about Juvenile Court Judge Alex Kim’s YouTube antics pulled back the curtain on the myth of the benevolent and wise juvenile court judge ensconced with the power to guide errant youth on a course of rehabilitation.
As in Oz, the man behind the curtain — and they are usually men — wields his power in harmful ways. But more than just the troubling conduct of one judge and the juvenile court he oversees, the Star-Telegram’s reporting reveals the way our modern juvenile court system causes lasting harm to youth, particularly and discriminately to Black, brown and Indigenous youth.
Garnering almost 2 million views, Judge Kim’s YouTube broadcast of his juvenile court proceedings show a judge employing racist stereotypes to criminalize a child, pressuring a confession from another child that ultimately endangered the child’s family, threatening another child with cutting off all contact with his mother, and transferring another child to criminal court for adult prosecution because the child swore at him. The videos show a biased judge abusing his authority; their publication online shows far more.
Confidentiality was once seen as foundational to a system designed to spare young people from “the stigma of being branded ‘criminal’.” As former Chief Justice William Rehnquist recognized, “from [the juvenile court’s] inception . . . its proceedings have been conducted outside the public’s full gaze and the youths brought before our juvenile courts have been shielded from publicity.”
Nevertheless, whether for internet fame or political gain, Judge Kim posts his juvenile court hearings online and exposes children, including those who he will find innocent, to public scrutiny by relying on Texas law that makes juvenile court hearings for youth between the ages of 14 and 18 are open to the public, and gives judges discretion to make hearings of youth under 14 public as well. But the public broadcast of juvenile court hearings online is very different from a physical hearing that is open to the public and could compromise the confidentiality protections that exist for young people in juvenile court.
Texas is not an outlier. Almost half of all U.S. states (24) hold juvenile court proceedings open to the public. And states’ juvenile records laws aren’t much better at protecting youth.
The availability of juvenile court records presents a serious impediment to young people’s ability to move ahead. They can prevent young people from being able to access public and private housing, serve in the military, secure professional licensures, or receive public welfare. As they grow into adulthood, many young people can and do lose driving privileges and are regularly turned down for employment and secondary education opportunities. The effects of a juvenile court record impose barriers at every stage of the youth’s reentry. When records are made public or court hearings are broadcast, the impact on the young person is magnified.
This is by design. We long ago dispensed with the notion that children should be spared the brand of criminality. The ongoing era of mass incarceration that began in the 1990s was fueled in part by a deeply racist myth that our communities were about to be overrun by “child superpredators,” children who were inherently and irreparably dangerous. The myth helped spurn legislatures around the country to enact tougher punishments for youth, including transferring more youth for prosecution in the adult system. To ensure society was protected from their inevitable criminality, records laws were loosened.
While the myth has been flatly debunked, including by its original author, and youth crime has steadily declined, many laws that treat children as criminal, and subject them to harsher punishments and legally permissible forms of discrimination, remain on the books.
And these laws continue to be used to perpetuate systemic racism. In Judge Kim’s courtroom, the discrimination is obvious. His insinuation that a child’s involvement in rap music was a road to criminality was explicitly racist; yet according to the Star-Telegram’s reporting, this incident was but a window into a larger and even more dysfunctional court system. An internal audit revealed that in Tarrant County, the juvenile court’s associate judges failed to hold over 60% of their scheduled hearings, while the juvenile detention center experienced severe overcrowding, with 90% of long-term incarcerations being Black and brown youth, and only 7% white.
Contrast this with a county that is 72% white and 19% Black.That is systemic racism on full display.
These numbers are not unusual. A report by the Sentencing Project found that while Black youth comprised only 16% of all youth in the United States, as of 2013, they accounted for 40% of incarcerated youth. The report found that Black youth were more than twice as likely to be arrested and more than four times as likely to be committed to secure confinement as white youth. So the collateral consequences of a juvenile record fall disproportionately on Black youth.
In the last 15 years, the United States Supreme Court — relying on neuroscience and adolescent development research — has repeatedly held that children are capable of and do change. The online publication of juvenile court hearings means that the record of one of the worst moments in their lives will be forever enshrined on the internet.
So, no matter how much those children grow and change, the trauma of Judge Kim’s courtroom will endure and the collateral consequences of their encounter with the juvenile court system will follow them for the rest of their lives.
Note: This op-ed originally noted that Judge Kim’s posting of hearings on YouTube was “perfectly legal.” It was updated after the author relayed that some Texas attorneys believe that this practice violates the state’s laws on the confidentiality of juvenile court information.