In In Re Gault promised due process to juveniles. It is said to be part of the “due process revolution of the 1960’s. Some lawyers are working toward another revolution, one that creates a juvenile system that works for youth.
Sarah Davis is one of the lawyers who believe that reform is necessary to keep to the spirit of Gault. She is part of a coalition that is working to make Minnesota laws congruent with what medical and legal experts know works for youth. That involves diversion and community-based restorative justice. The goal is a system that holds the child responsible, imposes consequences but is effective to the youth who do not have the brain development of the adults who are punishing them.
“Our system needs to take into account that human brains are not fully developed until the mid-20s. That manifests itself at every stage of juvenile justice proceedings. Maybe they were interviewed by police and couldn’t comprehend what was happening,” Davis said.
To reform laws in a way that appears to benefit lawbreakers is no easy task politically and one that may take more than one legislative session, as will the present efforts. “We tried to pick out some areas where we could make some changes,” Davis said. For example, the currently introduced legislation calls for an end to shackling juveniles because it is traumatic and shaming. It authorizes police to divert nonviolent juvenile offenders from the arrest track and explicitly states that is appropriate to consider adolescent brain development when sentencing extended jurisdiction juveniles or juveniles tried as adults.
An attorney at the Legal Rights Center, Davis assists her clients with challengers well beyond their delinquency charges, said U of M Professor Perry Moriearty. And she also assists the court with memoranda and argument on the broader constitutional issues in her cases. When he nominated her, Moriearty clearly recognized something special in Sarah Davis, an up and coming attorney.