In 2008, former Washington State Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge left the bench to join the Center for Children & Youth Justice, which she founded in 2006 and seeks to effect positive change in the state’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems through partnerships, projects, advocacy, and policy change. Jewish in Seattle sat down with Justice Bridge to get a better sense of her work.
How did you get involved in youth justice?
I was in grad school, focusing on juvenile justice issues in political science. I got a grant for my doctorate to look at juvenile courts in Walla Walla County and King County to find out how kids felt impacted by the court process. I was mentored to go to law school. My mentors said, “Why are you sitting here taking notes when you could be in the action?” I went to work for a law firm, which was great. Their attitude was not just about the practice of law but also about the responsibility of being a lawyer, which is giving back to your community and using your legal skills to make your community a better place. When I moved to the bench, I wanted to spend part of my tenure working on juvenile justice. It was a time of great turmoil. In the ’90s there was a lot of talk of getting tough on crime. Kids were committing hellacious acts. It drew me into some cases that were difficult and showed huge holes in our system.
What kinds of problems did you encounter?
We seem to care more about the comfort level of the adults working in the systems than we do about the kids we serve. We have court rules that say when you set a hearing, people are supposed to be there and decisions are made. But people say, “We’re not ready.” So the judge says, “OK, I’ll give you a continuance and we’ll have it again in another month.” This has incredibly negative consequences for the kids. A month in the life of a 3-year-old is a very long time.
Was there a pivotal moment in your career that led you to the founding of CCYJ?
The “aha” moment was that these were the same kids. Even a kid that only pops up into the system at the juvenile justice age, you start to scratch the surface, and you see they’ve been truant. Truancy is the greatest predictor of delinquency. You scratch a little more, and you see they have these absolutely chaotic, horrible home lives. The robbery of a 7–Eleven by a 15-year-old wasn’t hatched yesterday. It was probably hatched when he was 2, 3, or 4, being abused, neglected, or coming from “ACEs,” adverse childhood experiences. We have an obligation to keep the child safe. All too often, we have kids who aren’t able to go home, and they spend their developmental years going from foster home to foster home. They’re at high risk for failing in school, becoming truant, dropping out, and all the negative consequences of that, like engaging in risky activities that result in criminal actions. We promise to rehabilitate them. If we fail at that, when they leave the juvenile justice system they can become homeless. All too often they end up in the adult criminal justice system. A life has been lost. We need to look at this holistically, and in effect, try to cut through this continuum.
Are things improving?
We’re without good solutions to the increasingly high number of kids of color and LGBTQ kids in our systems. We have to focus on that. It’s not a system that’s just if it doesn’t address all kids. On the good side, we work together as professionals in the system so much better. Systems change is hard. But there’s a great deal of willingness and agreement that our justice system needs work, and that it has the potential to be so much better than it is.