Points of Discretion
I learned about points of discretion at a 2010 conference about the law and racial justice. In the legal world, a point of discretion is a moment when a person in authority has the opportunity to make a judgment about a behavior, a chance to view and act differently. This case is adapted from Catherine Beane.
Jimmy is a 14-year-old boy accused of shoplifting at a local 7-Eleven convenience store. He is a 7th grader in a junior high school located in a predominantly low-income neighborhood. Beginning in 4th grade, Jimmy was placed in special education classes because of conduct and behavioral disorders. He has repeated a grade in school twice and is the oldest 7th grader in the class. He reads on a 4th grade level, is frequently absent from school, and has previously been suspended for disciplinary infractions. Jimmy is African American and lives in an apartment with his mother ad grandmother. Neither his mother nor his grandmother completed high school.
The shoplifting charges arise from an incident that occurred during school hours at a 7-Eleven several blocks from Jimmy’s school. A security officer observed Jimmy placing a bag of chips inside his jacket, zipping his jacket up, and then exiting the store without paying. The security officer detained Jimmy and phoned the police. The responding officer was in the middle of a hectic day; he had already responded to an incident near the school. The officer was also aware that multiple calls for police assistance had come in as he arrived at the 7-Eleven and was anxious to process this situation quickly. He placed Jimmy under arrest and described Jimmy in reports as disrespectful, non-responsive, and having a hard look on his face.
Jimmy was detained in a group home pending the resolution of his court case and was ultimately adjudicated delinquent. He was represented by a public defender who carried a caseload more than twice the recommended ABA guidelines, and the prosecuting attorney operated under a similarly heavy caseload. These caseload pressures prevented both the prosecuting attorney and Jimmy’s public defender from interviewing Jimmy’s mother, grandmother, and teacher until the morning of the delinquency proceeding, and neither reviewed Jimmy’s educational records. The judge presiding over Jimmy’s case handled ten other matters on the same morning. Jimmy is now under continued court supervision and must report to his probation officer weekly. He frequently waits for over an hour in a crowded waiting room for his weekly meeting, which lasts less than three minutes.
There were ten people in authority in this story. How could a difference in decision-making by one of them have changed the outcome of this story?
1. the mother
2. the grandmother
3. Jimmy’s (4th-7th) classroom teachers
4. Jimmy’s special education teacher
5. the 7-Eleven guard
6. the arresting officer
7. the juvenile case worker
8. the public defender
9. the prosecuting attorney
10. the judge