By John Bernitz, Public Defender, Anchorage, AK
Here in Alaska, we are in our third year of celebrating In re Gault Day. I am the only person in Anchorage — and indeed the entire state — who does delinquency defense full time. This event was created to honor the important anniversary, to remind other office members that delinquency defense exists, and, of course, to enjoy cooking and good company.
The event is gathering steam. This year we had about fifty people. We ate great food (beef, chicken, lamb soulvaki, tzatziki, Greek salad, etc.). We watched the In re Gault song video. We also watched the video of an eight-year-old boy being arm-cuffed in Kentucky. I showed that video, which is horrible to watch, to support public defenders. It can be a very challenging job in large part because we represent people with mental health difficulties. I wanted to point out that the difficult adult client they represent today probably went through trauma as a child. And this video is, let’s just say, a dramatic presentation of trauma to a child. I also wanted to point out that being a public defender gives one the opportunity to fight against the people and institutions who do harm to children.
We also had a small fundraiser. People brought in shoes and a story about them (“these shoes hiked the Appalachian Trail”). People paid to guess the owner of the shoes. Our money, one hundred and five dollars, went to the Lunch Box, which makes lunch for kids. Some of my clients in detention or just out of detention complete community service hours at the Lunch Box.
We also give out an award to the person who has helped children involved in delinquency court the most this past year. Attorney Mary Bullis won the award. The actual award is always a semi-used toy, left over from raising my kids. The first year it was a robot dinosaur. This year Mary won a sealed set of art playing cards.
People love this holiday. The strength is that it is casual and sincere, and commemorates an important decision in history. I still remember Mr. Gault speaking at the National Juvenile Defender Center’s Summit gathering for juvenile public defenders about his experience and crying.