May 16, 2013 – The 12th Annual Zealous Advocacy Conference kicked off today at the University of Houston Law Center. Juvenile justice advocates from across the country have come to Houston for the two-day professional development training hosted by the Center for Children, Law & Policy.
The conference opened with keynote speaker David Domenici discussing alternative education in juvenile facilities during his presentation, "Common Sense Solution: Making Education a Central Part of Zealous Advocacy."
"Keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system centers around education," Domenici said. "However, almost nothing has been done to improve the schools in correctional facilities, and I would argue, almost nothing to improve the life prospects of the more than 70,000 kids in the juvenile justice system. "
Domenici is the co-founder of the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools, a network of alternative schools in the District of Columbia, and a Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress. He is also the director of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. He is credited with taking one of the country's worst schools for incarcerated youth and transforming it into a national model.
"What if the kids who needed the most, got the most we could offer," Domenici questioned. "We need to provide incarcerated youth with a quality educational system, facilitate their reintegration into the community, and support their personal success."
Diane Vines, a therapist in the Therapy & Psychological Services Department at The Children's Assessment Center in Houston, presented "Teen Brains: They're Not Like Ours."
"One take away for children's advocates to remember about teens is that they are not grownups," Vines said. "We expect them to make best choices and often times, they can't. Their brains are immature and under developed." Additionally, children who end up in juvenile justice system often "had experiences as small children that did not serve them well," she said.
Kim Dvorchak of the Colorado Juvenile Defense Coalition gave a lunch-hour juvenile law legislative update.
"The most important development in juvenile law right now is that we are moving kids from adult facilities back into secure juvenile detention centers," Dvorchak said. "This will give them better access to education in a pro social format. The bottom line is teens are in a critical period of brain development and how we treat them at that stage will profoundly impact them for the rest of their lives. The more we can provide positive feedback and stimulation, the better their future outcomes can be."
Kicking off the afternoon session, University of Houston Law Center Professor David Dow presented "How Old Are Murderers When They Become Murderers."
"Eighty percent of death row population are people who had exposure to juvenile justice or criminal justice system and are from homes so dysfunctional that we need to invent another word to describe it," Dow said.
The toxic environments existing in these dysfunctional homes are a "health hazard in the exact same way that cigarette smoking is," he added.
Senior Staff Attorney & Policy Advocate at the National Juvenile Defender Center Nadia Seeratan discussed a newly released guide of national juvenile defense standards and the special role that comes with being an advocate for juvenile clients.
"We as juvenile defenders have a different role that those dealing with adult clients because we need to counsel our clients why choices they make might sometimes be misguided, but we also have an ethical duty to represent their expressed interest," Seeratan said. "The hope is by having national standards that we are going to have higher quality legal representation for youth that protects their Constitutional right to due process."
The Center for Children, Law & Policy is directed by Professor Ellen Marrus. Irene Merker Rosenberg Child Advocacy Scholars are Shiloh Carter, Alex Hunt, Cara Henley Johnson, Allison Arterberry, Ashley Pierce, and Lisa Steffek.
The conference will continue tomorrow with speakers including Francis Guzman of the National Center for Youth Law; Professor Joseph Tulman of the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law; and Houston Mayor Annise Parker.