Courthouse Dogs Calm Testifying Juveniles

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“Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.” ― Dean Koontz, False Memory

Several programs exist across the country in which prosecutors and defense counsel use professionally trained dogs to help ease the anxiety juveniles experience while being interviewed or testifying in court.  Oftentimes, juveniles must discuss details of physical or emotional abuse, and having an affectionate, yet unobtrusive dog nearby helps ease the stress.  Research has shown that within as little as five minutes of petting or interacting with a dog, a person’s heart rate and blood pressure lowers; breathing becomes more regular; muscle tension is reduced; and speech, memory, and mental functions increase.  The physiological changes juveniles experience when courtroom dogs are around aid their ability to testify, which is extremely important because juveniles’ testimony needs to be as articulate and complete as possible.  In her article, Court Facility Dogs—Easing the Apprehensive Witness, Colorado attorney Gabriela Sandoval states, “The more at ease a child feels, the more effective his or her testimony will be.  Articulate testimony will assist in obtaining evidence that can either convict or exonerate the defendant.  When the child witness is comfortable, emotions may not obstruct or slow down important testimony.”

The Courthouse Dogs Foundation was founded with the mission “to promote justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.”  Their website, courthousedogs.com, recounts the positive outcome from a trial in which a testifying juvenile was allowed to be accompanied by a facility dog:

In September of 2012, in Snohomish County, WA, Mary Mazalic was brought to trial for starving, beating, and burning a ten-year-old girl.  Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lisa Paul filed a motion in limine to ask the court’s permission to allow facility dog Stilson to sit at the feet of this child victim while she testified in court.  Her brief included an affidavit from victim advocate Heidi Potter, Stilson’s handler, documenting how Stilson provided comfort to this child during the investigative phase of these crimes.  The judge found that this child suffered emotional trauma from these events. 
 The defense did not object to the presence of Stilson with the agreement that he would be concealed by the witness box and the jury would not be aware of his presence.
  While in the witness box, Stilson remained calm and out of sight during the lengthy direct and cross-examination.  He did not even move when defense counsel spilled a glass of water into the witness box and several people moved to this area to clean up the water.

The defendant was convicted as charged.

After the trial, jurors stated they did not know that a dog was in the courtroom.  Stilson, the invisible dog, was bred, raised, and trained by Canine Companions for Independence.  His behavior exemplifies the high level of training of a facility dog.

This is only one of numerous success stories of facility dogs assisting in criminal, juvenile, and drug courts.  Additionally, these dogs visit juveniles in detention facilities and are a friendly presence during their recovery process.  Currently, there are courthouse dogs working in twenty-one states:  Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

The unconditional love and support the courthouse dogs offer juveniles make them a positive counterbalance to the often overwhelming and stressful setting of the courts.  The placement of dogs in the courthouse is a wonderful program, which hopefully, will continue to grow and be implemented in more courts throughout the country.

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Above Photo:  Courthouse dog Russell, trained by Assistance Dogs of the West, works at the Southern Arizona Child Advocacy Center with Director Kathy Rau.  Photo courtesy Courthouse Dogs Foundation.

Intro Photo:  Molly B at the King County Courthouse. Molly B was bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence.  Photo courtesy Courthouse Dogs Foundation and the Seattle Police Department.

For more information regarding the Courthouse Dogs Foundation or for starting a program for the use of courthouse dogs, visit courthousedogs.com.

Massachusetts Raises Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction to Age 18

On Wednesday, September 18, 2013, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation which raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 17 to 18 years.  The legislation, H. 1432 “An Act Expanding Juvenile Jurisdiction,” expands juvenile court jurisdiction to 17-year-olds accused of crimes, and also provides for them to be ordered into the custody of the Department of Youth Services rather than adult prison or jail.  However, juvenile court judges have discretion to impose an adult sentence in cases involving extremely violent crimes.  Additionally, the 17-year-olds will no longer receive an adult criminal record, and they will benefit from other safeguards provided to juveniles.

9805579335-6680465958-zThe official website of the Massachusetts Governor quoted Chief Justice of the Juvenile Court Michael F. Edgerton:  “‘This bill acknowledges that the brain development and maturity of a 17-year-old are legally important factors in addressing antisocial behavior and that the capacity of juveniles for rehabilitation exceeds that of adults.’”  Another supporter, Representative Alice Peisch, also focused on the role of adolescent development:  “Given research findings on adolescent development, I believe that the Commonwealth will benefit from housing 17-year-old offenders in juvenile correction facilities rather than the adult prison system.”  Further, she stated, “This law now ensures that all incarcerated youth are able to receive age-appropriate services and brings the Commonwealth into compliance with federal regulations on the separation of younger prisoners from adults.”

Senator Karen Spilka and Representative Kay Khan sponsored H. 1432.  Senator Spilka stated, “I have fought for many years to make this change a reality.”  Moreover, “Our juvenile justice system plays a critical role in helping youth offenders get back on track.  Seventeen-year-olds are not adults – they are developmentally much more like the younger teenagers in the system, and their crimes are often the same types of offenses.  Raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction will provide teenagers with the age-appropriate rehabilitation and support services they need for future success.”

Massachusetts now joins thirty-nine other states and the federal government who use the age of 18 as the age of adult criminal jurisdiction.

Photo:  Iaritza Menjivar / Governor’s Office

For more information:  http://www.mass.gov/governor/pressoffice/pressreleases/2013/0918-juvenile-jurisdiction-legislation.html.

Armed Teachers in Schools – Helpful or Harmful?

ArmedTeachersDuring the past year, twenty states have enacted new school safety legislation allowing armed security officers in schools, including elementary schools.  Additionally, various schools in Texas, Utah, Arkansas, Kansas, and South Dakota allow authorized teachers the option to carry firearms.  Further, the National Rifle Association recommends that all U.S. schools should have police or armed teachers and staff members trained to confront shooters.  The following list complied by the Huffington Post provides information on eighteen states that allow teachers or other adults to carry loaded firearms on school grounds:

  • Alabama:  Prohibits possessing a firearm on school grounds only if the carrier has ‘intent to do bodily harm.’
  • California:  Permits carrying a firearm on school grounds if a person has ‘the written permission of the school district superintendent, his or her designee, or equivalent school authority.’
  • Connecticut:  Permits carrying a firearm on school grounds if agreed to by school officials.
  • Hawaii:  Generally does not prohibit the carrying of guns in schools.
  • Idaho:  Permits carrying a firearm on school grounds ‘as an appropriate part of a program, an event, activity or other circumstance approved by the board of trustees or governing board.’
  • Iowa:  Permits carrying a firearm on school grounds if ‘a person has been specifically authorized by the school.’
  • Kentucky:  Permits carrying firearms on campus if the person has been ‘authorized to carry a firearm by the board of education.’
  • Massachusetts:  Permits carrying firearms on school grounds with the authorization of the school board or principal.
  • Mississippi:  Permits carrying firearms on campus in a ‘school-approved program conducted under the supervision of an adult whose supervision has been approved by the school authority.’
  • Montana:  Permits carrying firearms on school grounds with the permission of a school district’s trustees.
  • New Hampshire:  Does not have a law prohibiting non-students from possessing firearms on school grounds.
  • New Jersey:  Permits carrying firearms on school grounds with ‘the written authorization of the governing officer of the institution.’
  • New York:  Permits carrying firearms on school grounds with written authorization from the school.
  • Oregon:  Permits carrying guns on school grounds with authorization from the school board, or the ‘agency that controls the public building.’
  • Rhode Island:  Permits carrying firearms on school grounds with a state concealed weapons permit.
  • Texas:  Permits carrying firearms on campus with written authorization from the school.
  • Utah:  Permits carrying firearms on campus with the approval of the ‘responsible school administrator.’
  • Wyoming:  Does not have a general prohibition on the possession of firearms on school property, but bars concealed weapons with or without a permit.

Guns In Schools:  Firearms Already Allowed In 18 States With Few Restrictions, The Huffington Post, (Jan. 15, 2013, 5:00 pm EST, Updated: Jan. 15, 2013 5:09, pm EST), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/guns-in-schools-firearms-_n_2482168.html.

However, several states have faced opposition to proposed legislation allowing schoolteachers to carry handguns.  Some parents have voiced concerns that teachers carrying guns will actually increase the number of school shootings.  Other individuals argue that it is law enforcement’s job to patrol safety in the classroom, and teachers carrying handguns will be distracted from their intended focus:  teaching students.  Lastly, some critics argue that teachers are role models for students and having them carry handguns encourages kids’ interest in guns.  As a result of the aforementioned concerns, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Oklahoma are no longer pursuing passage of the legislation.

Reactions to the issue of whether schoolteachers should be allowed to carry handguns have been sharply divided.  Should licensed school personnel be allowed to carry handguns to protect their students?  Or, does an answer to the issue depend on the facts occurring in each individual school; therefore, what is appropriate on one campus is inappropriate on another?  Should schools only allow armed security officers on campuses?  Or, should all guns be banned from schools?