Dogged by Probation

A 17-year-old defendant responded affirmatively to the judge’s question of whether he understands that he will go back to jail if the terms of his probation are found to be violated. He had been quiet up to this point, forced into silence as the details of his life were tossed around the courtroom. I am always taken aback by the simultaneous hyper-visibility and sense of absence associated with defendants in Poughkeepsie City Court. Despite their personal information and immediate future being front and center, the defendants themselves are often ignored, excluded from the deliberation on their own fate.

Certain instances stick out in their ability to highlight the absurdity of the business as usual processes of punishment. In this teenager’s case, the probation violation charge stemmed from the report of an officer who discovered signs that the family dog was still living at his home, an apparent breach in the terms set for the defendant’s release. For the criminal justice system, the possession of a childhood pet translated into a reason to potentially jail a minor, disrupt his life and take him away from his family. The court saw the care-taking of a family dog as grounds to physically confine a 17-year-old.

The reasons for the original prohibition of having a dog were unclear. Another judge had handled the case. Someone baselessly suggested it was because the animal had “been trained to attack people in uniform.” The confusion and contention over the apparent dog violation culminated in the case being put on hold until its second call. The teenage boy dropped down in the row next to his mother and the two waited through most of the day’s hearings to find out if something as harmless as an inability to find someone else to take the family dog would land the defendant back in jail.

Over an hour had passed by the time the teen was called again. His visibly overworked public defender, now having had a chance to talk with the defendant and his mother, reported that the dog was living with a friend. The judge appeared unfazed by the defense attorney’s attempts to highlight the minuscule level of the apparent violation. Sternly, he concluded the hearing by announcing that he will check the transcript to confirm the dog order and proceeded to threaten the teenager with more jail time if the pet was found at their home. The defendant turned to walk back to his mother who was standing and shaking her head as the next case number was called.