Seeking Justice for Children and Families, Both ‘On and Off the Bench’

Justice Nancy Saitta was elected in 2006 to the Nevada Supreme Court, where she served as chief justice from September 2011 to May 2012. A former prosecutor and municipal and state district court judge, Saitta has been a tireless advocate for children, youth and juvenile justice reform. Saitta retired her seat on the Nevada Supreme Court in August, but remains a senior justice and will continue 
to fight for the state’s children and youth as chair of the state Blue Ribbon for Kids Commission, the Coalition to Combat Criminal Sexual Exploitation of Children and the Juvenile Justice Reform Commission. Saitta serves as co-chair of the CSG Interbranch Affairs Committee and is a 2009 CSG Toll Fellow.

1. What are the most important issues facing state courts today?

“The ability of the court system to meet demands with fewer resources and more vulnerable youth entering that system is a serious matter. … Lack of resources means delayed justice, which frequently means those accused or in need of services remain at large in the community and at risk to themselves and others.

I also believe there is inadequate training and professional development at all levels of the system. … Those who practice in the area of child welfare and juvenile justice should be required to maintain the highest standard of practice.”

2. How have state budget cuts affected the courts?

“When court resources are overburdened and challenged, civil trials are delayed and injured parties are often left without sufficient medical care, potentially unable to work, and economic strain is felt by the family and the community.

Criminal courts are overwhelmed and detention facilities are overcrowded, understaffed and left without sufficient programming. … The lock ’em up mentality is no longer a meaningful response. Therapeutic courts, such as drug courts, mental health courts and veterans’ courts, can better deal with cases that once were considered criminal matters. We now know that treatment or therapeutic diversion programs produce far better results for law abiding compliance because the real core issues which give rise to the criminality—such as substance abuse, homelessness or mental illness—are best treated in those types of court systems. But, cuts in state budgets have severely affected the ability of the system to properly staff these specialty courts.”

3. You’ve been a tireless advocate for children throughout your career, as a justice, judge and prosecutor. Why is this issue so important?

“Children are almost always the silent participants in our system of justice. They are the least represented and the most affected when courts intervene in their lives. … Kids don’t vote, so their power to influence policy is non-existent. The statistics tell us that kids who enter the system at an early age more often than not are on a continuum that none of us would want for our own children: delinquency, teen pregnancy, homelessness, interrupted education and deeper court involvement. … By advocating on behalf of this silent population, I can educate the public and marshal support for change. I can also influence legislation and policy considerations, demand that the system provide meaningful processes, and train better judges.”

4. How are state courts working to improve the child protection system?

“State courts are now engaging in a full view, or holistic, approach to child protection. Where families are unable to provide what a child needs to be safe and healthy, courts are now taking their role as ‘paren patriae’ seriously. State courts are being trained to understand what the boots-on-the-ground welfare worker is doing to assess the safety of a child and are partnering with welfare workers, community providers and foster parents. … When judges and attorneys are required to make all possible effort to fully understand the dynamic that brings the family to the court, better results for all and long lasting change can be more readily accomplished.”

5. How do you hope these efforts will affect the courts in the long term? What do you hope the trickle-down effects will be?

“When the entire justice system works together as one—for healthy families, safe neighborhoods and less prison population—the entire community benefits. Courts and judicial officers will no longer be isolated in their decision-making efforts. Child welfare and parents’ attorneys can fully engage in the process when and if the system considers everyone’s unique needs and the role that each justice partner plays in making it right. Ultimately, the trickle-down effect should result in less family violence, less substance abuse, less homelessness, better education and strong partners supporting one another.”

6. What are the biggest opportunities for improvement in the juvenile justice system?

“Although child welfare and juvenile justice are different and unique systems, too many children who enter the system on the child welfare side of the court frequently ‘graduate’ to the juvenile justice side of the court. But tremendous opportunities exist to keep kids out of the juvenile delinquency system by working within the family, the schools and the community. We need to better assess what brings youth into the system, as opposed to simply housing them until they reach the age of majority. The biggest opportunity for juvenile justice improvement would be to reduce the population of youth who enter the system and to better prepare youth for re-entry into their communities when juvenile detention is necessary.”

7. What role can judges play in improving outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system?

“Judges need to advocate for better resources and better opportunities for training of those who work in the juvenile justice system, and must encourage education and job training as meaningful alternatives to the youth probation, parole and incarceration methods that we have traditionally relied upon. Judges need to be a part of the justice system both on and off the bench.”

8. In what ways can working across the three branches of government be a challenge for state leaders?

“None of the three branches truly understand how the other branches operate. Judges enforce laws that legislators draft, while child welfare and juvenile justice matters of policy are largely contained by and created within the executive branch. Open communication about limitations on each branch should be encouraged so that when each of us is working on the task before us, we can better understand why and how our actions can affect the other branches. Interbranch collaboration also allows for the very best use of scarce resources, whether human or fiscal.”

9. How are states improving interbranch cooperation?

“Interbranch task forces, coalitions and commissions are becoming more cross-branch oriented. Nationally recognized experts, such as the CSG Justice Center staff, are engaged in technical assistance that informs the work of all three branches at the highest levels for the best outcomes. When stakeholders representing all three branches sit in the same room and identify the goals and objectives for the population they ALL serve, the results can be phenomenal. Breeding familiarity across separate branch boundaries encourages communication, efficiency, and far better outcomes for our children, families and communities.”

10. In the information age, there is a push for state governments to become more open and transparent. How does this trend affect state courts?

“The courts need to strive to better inform the public—as well as the other two branches—regarding what they do and why they do it. Of course, case-specific information must be properly protected, but what the courts do must be informed by evidence-based decisions and data-informed processes. This should be shared with the community and system partners. When public awareness is encouraged and data—both good and bad—is shared with the stakeholders and partners the courts serve, the mystique of the bench is removed and the system is better served.”