Beachley's hard cases

February 26, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

When a youngster stands before Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley in juvenile court for the second or third time, the judge said the likelihood the child will appear before him as an adult has increased.

One by one, case by case, children - some only slightly taller than the defendant's chair - stand before Beachley for judgment on Wednesdays in the county's juvenile court, located in a small courtroom decorated in royal blue on the third floor of the Washington County Courthouse.

Wearing everything from sweatsuits to business suits, the children utter their pleas in Beachley's direction, often nodding along with a humbled "Yes sir" when appropriate.


Juvenile cases are much harder to adjudicate than adult cases, Beachley said.

When adults are before him for sentencing on criminal charges, he must choose between probation, county jail or state prison, he said.

But when a child's brought before him, Beachley said he must decide whether to place the juvenile on probation, place him or her in a foster home or in a community, noncommunity or group home or place the child in an institution.

"There are lots of options available and I have to find out what's in the best interest of the child," he said.

He doesn't make a decision about a youngster based solely on the charges at hand, he said. In juvenile court, Beachley hears the testimony of representatives from Washington County Public Schools, the Department of Juvenile Services, the Washington County Health Department and other agencies that might be monitoring the child's behavior and progress.

More investigations are performed into children's backgrounds before sentencing than are performed into the backgrounds of adults, he said.

A child's performance at school or at home is an important factor in Beachley's decisions, he said.

"The child's job is to go to school and get an education. If a child can't do that then I need to look at alternative placement," he said.

Parents' comments in court can be telling, he said.

If Beachley notices that the parent has a blas attitude toward the charges, he said he might determine that that attitude is detrimental to the child's ability to rehabilitate himself or herself.

Rarely does Beachley yell at a child, he said, because it rarely brings positive results. But he said he has raised his voice at parents who aren't setting good examples for their children.

Children who take cars without permission probably top his caseload in juvenile court, he said. Sex offenses, although heard much less frequently, are the most disturbing, he said.

Beachley said his relationship with the children who are brought before him is an exchange built solely on the law.

"I'm trying to send a message to (children) that number one, they're in a court, which, in our society, is an important institution," he said.

"Secondly," he said, "that there are consequences that flow from one's actions and thirdly, that I'm here to help you through this process so you don't come back."

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