The first day in uniform, I was assigned to be a bailiff in a courtroom, a place completely foreign to me. The moment I walked in the door was something like magic. I instantly knew this would be my life’s work. The next 42 years were spent in and around the courts as a bailiff, court clerk, court administrator, lawyer, judge and judicial administrator. During those years came Scouting opportunities as a scoutmaster, den leader, committee member, executive board member, district chair, Learning for Life advisor and merit badge counselor.
We would bring packs and troops to the courthouse at the end of a court day, when all of the prisoners had been sent back to their jail cells, and take the boys to the “lock-up tank,” a temporary holding area for prisoners awaiting court hearings. Each cell consisted of steel benches attached to the wall, a single toilet and a single water basin.
Prisoners would arrive at 8:00 in the morning from a several hour bus ride from the central jail, and would sit in the tank all day, except the few minutes of time most of them would spend being taken to and from a courtroom. There would be 30 to 50 prisoners in a single lock up cell. They ate their lunches of dry baloney sandwiches, an apple and a cookie in this same tank. There was no trash can, because a loose object could also be a weapon. By days’ end the lock up was a dirty, smelly place.
We would put the Scouts in the tank, then close and lock the doors. Their first few minutes would always be filled with joking and pushing and shoving. But most often, we would begin to see a more sober side of the boys as they contemplated the harsh implications of being confined in such a place with other persons jailed for criminal behavior.
I considered the jail visit a good teaching experience relating to the Citizenship merit badges, a time when the boys could get a few moments of real-time exposure to the consequences of making the wrong choices in life.
Our court organized and put into place a drug court. Designed as a last hope for people whose addictions had driven them to a variety of criminal misconduct, it gave a selected few arrestees the opportunity to turn their lives around. To qualify for the program, the arrestee had to be facing a state prison sentence for serious criminal conduct; have a criminal record for substance abuse; and had to be willing to make a commitment to change virtually every aspect of his or her life. Those who agreed were placed into a program where the entire criminal justice community worked with them toward a single goal…to become drug free. Their program was a minimum of one year, and up to two years. During that time they were assigned a mentor, moved from their old neighborhoods, given training and found jobs and sent to school. They were tested regularly to determine the presence of drugs in their system. Some of the participants failed, they could not break their drug habits, and they were sent off to state prison. Most of the participants slipped at least once or twice, for which they received punishment, but were then returned to the program and continued their progress.
At the end of their program, for those who were successful, there was a graduation ceremony. The charges against them were dismissed, and they were free to continue with their life. Two aspects of the graduation brought me to tears.
At the beginning and at the end of the program, the person would be photographed, and the two photographs displayed side by side. In almost every case, it would be difficult to identify the two photographs as being of the same person. The first photo was almost always portraying a “walking dead” image: sallow complexion, defiance or defeat in the eyes, a general feeling of hopelessness. The second photo, by comparison, showed bright, hopeful eyes, a genuine smile, healthy complexion: a person happy to be alive.
Each graduate was asked to give a brief speech about their experience. I shall never forget one particular lady, the mother of a ten year old child. She was dressed in conservative, well fitting business attire. In substance she said: “Before this program, I had never completed a job in my life. I would get a job and with the first paycheck, I would blow it on drugs and not go back. I had never had a complete conversation with my daughter. I didn’t know how. Now we talk, we work together to solve problems, we like each other. I have been on the same job for six months and just got a promotion and a raise. I didn’t know life could be like this, I didn’t know what it meant to be happy.”
In another court, a young man of 18 was brought before me, charged with “tagging” (writing his gang symbol on fences, walls and buildings). He was a gang member, and had been “crossing out” (writing over the top of the symbols of rival gangs). After talking to his attorney, he was willing to admit his guilt, but he was terrified with the conditions of his sentence. The prosecutor was recommending that he be required to spend 100 hours painting fences and walls with a neutral paint, and covering “tags” in the community. He pleaded with me not to impose that condition. He lifted up his shirt to reveal a chest with at least five or six puncture wounds, each representing a gunshot wound he had previously suffered. He said “If you put me in the street, I’ll be dead in a week. They’ll kill me.” He preferred jail to being on the street.
Why do I like being a Scouter?
I like to listen to boys struggling to express themselves about their responsibilities as citizens. I like watching young men participating with an older Scout in completing carefully planned Eagle projects. I like watching Scouts working together to build a camp, a campfire, a rope bridge, a life. I like watching them working and playing and laughing together, in a safe environment. I am grateful for the young men who, at each Scout meeting, pledge on their sacred honor, to live a life different than that which I daily witnessed in the courtroom. After dealing with the negative elements of society all day, I like being reminded that there are still being developed citizens who will take seriously the responsibility of maintaining a society in this nation where the rule of law will prevail.
Abraham Lincoln said “I will study and get ready, perhaps my chance will come.” I like being a Scouter, watching young men “studying and getting ready” for a future that will require their best.
Author: James L. Wright | Judge (Retired), Los Angeles Superior Court