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Book 'em! Superior Court Judge sentences juvenile offenders to hard literary labor.

Alameda County California: Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson Stanley presides over the Juvenile Division of one of northern California's most challenging courtrooms. As expected, the shelves in her chambers are filled with volumes of legal briefs and codes. Right alongside them, however, are great selections of contemporary fiction, nonfiction poetry.

From offspring of privilege "bored into crime" to hard core gangbangers bred on street violence, many of Judge Stanley's alleged offenders are sentenced to pick up these books and make a shift in both mind and spirit. She books them to hard literary labor through the works of young adult and adult authors, including Maya Angelou, Ben Carson, Walter Dean Myers and Waller Mosley. Judge Stanley, who also serve as the chair of the Educational Task Force for the Juvenile Court notes, "Most essay and book related assignments are reserved for first-time offenders and provide me with a road map for their needs and an insight to what's important to them." She brings judicious compassion and astute legal grounding to her undeterred efforts to turn the tide in these young lives, not wanting to contribute to personal or institutional failure. Super smart, with equal street savvy and the endless energy of a teenager, Judge Stanley says, "I wanted these young people to develop some sense of self-discovery," a feat difficult to achieve in prison. She insists they "learn to travel and see other places through words." Sometimes assignments relate to the alleged offense. Other homework may mimic the juvenile offender's social history, provide him or her with a different vision, or offer new coping skills.

Judge Stanley has received numerous requests from young people for emancipation from their parents. In processing their requests, she asks them to write biographies of their parents. "Most of them have no idea who their parents are or where they come from."


Having grown up in the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland, descended from a grandfather who learned to read from labels on cans, instruction manuals and the Bible, Judge Stanley is right in step with every nuance, move or game her of charges try to play. "I know what fear looks like," she says. "While I was rebellious, I was always a good student and valued the distance I could go in my file with books. And I simply was never afraid to work hard, never."

Her early literary diet included mysteries, novels and poetry. "I loved anything by Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy was one of my favorites."

A 1983 graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, she studied under pioneering literary and film scholars like Roy Thomas and Albert Johnson. Stanley developed a keen interest in books under the tutelage of Thomas and the intellectual fervor of Johnson. She graduated from Boalt Hall School of Law in 1986.

Her courtroom is filled with art and photographs, and on the west wall is an excerpt from "The Vision for the Children of California." Current literary journeys have her "traveling with J. California Cooper, Eric Jerome Dickey, E. Lynn Harris and Derrick Ball, as they write, in widely varying styles, about black life and culture.


Oftentimes, she slams her gavel down with one hand and extends a book with the other. Judge Stanley introduces books to these young people as a gift of opportunity, not a sanction or sentence.

"I can't keep Antwone Fisher's Finding Fish on my shelf," she says, glancing at her shelves. "It's also hard to hold onto anything by Gary Soto, Walter Mosley, Amy Tan, Ben Carson, Gordon Parks and Walter Dean Myers," she beams proudly. "I purchase most of the books with the aid of my Barnes & Noble discount card. I love to read, and I am constantly purchasing new books. I read must of the books I assign to determine whether they are age appropriate and whether it falls in line with something I want the kids to get. A growing number of girls are coming into my courtroom, some of them just plain bullies, swaggering in and thinking they'll just roll right out. I've assigned several excerpts from

Rachel Simmons's Odd Girl Out" Although the majority of the books she assigns are by black authors, reading writers who expand the young peoples' world is important to her.

Stanley deeply respects the young people and their parents in her courtroom. "And I expect courtesy from these attorneys toward their clients as well. For attorneys who are late, I have a sanctions box." If they hold up the parties and the proceedings, attorneys pay--usually gladly--the ordered sanction: they provide something for the "jury box" from a list of items. Attorneys also "blindly" donate books. The kids get to choose something from the jury box if they have done a good job on their reading and writing tasks. Along with donated books, there are alarm clocks, watches, pocket calendars, backpacks and other school related items.

"In my retirement, I would love to write short stories, murder mysteries or just a plain journal for my own growth and reflection," Judge Stanley says. Retirement will have to wait, for she continues to win the hearts and especially the minds of scores of young people who would otherwise be listening to the slam of a cell locking instead of clocking study time in preparation for final exams. One of her juvenile offenders may well re-enter her courtroom as a lawyer, judge or Nobel Laureate coming to give thanks for getting "booked."


HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh Harper & Row, 1964: Yearling Books, May 2001 $5.99. ISBN 0-440-41679-5

FINDING FISH: A MEMOIR by Antwone Q. Fisher Harper Collins Perennial, December 2001 $13.95, ISBN 0-060-00778-8

ODD GIRL OUT: THE HIDDEN CULTURE OF AGGRESSION IN GIRLS by Rachel Simmons Harcourt, April 2002 $25.00, ISBN 0-151-00604-0

Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet, as well as a consultant on curriculum. Muse has taught courses in modern fiction and children's literature at Mills College, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley. Muse is the author of Children of Africa, Prejudice: A Story Collection and The New Press Guide to Multicultural Resources for Young Readers. She has had more than 300 feature articles, essays, reviews and op-ed pieces published in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury and various ethnic publications. Muse's article on the judge who sentences young people to reading assignments begins on page 18.
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Title Annotation:Paths To Academic Success
Author:Muse, Daphne
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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