CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- For more than 30 years, Suzanne Bailey has been on the front lines in Hamilton County's battle against youth crime.
She has spent most of her career in Juvenile Court, first as a referee (now known as magistrate) for eight years, and as Judge since 1990. Earlier this year, she announced she would retire at the end of April, about a year before the end of her current term.
Citing family and health reasons, she said, "I'd thought about it a long time, and one day I decided the time was right."
She is proud of her accomplishments but says she knows there is still much work to do. She spoke with Eyewitness News about what's working in Juvenile Court, and what still needs to be done.
Watching the never-ending parade of youth violence in Hamilton County, it's easy to get discouraged. But Judge Bailey says despite the deterioration of family and the growth of gangs, progress is being made. Rather than the stopping and starting of the past, she believes the city's current Gang Task Force must remain intact.
"I know the next mayor [Andy Berke] wants to make changes," she said. "But I'd hate to see any interruption in the work that is going on. A lot of people have put a lot of time in this, starting at the street level. It may take a while to see the results that we want, but the groundwork has been laid. We've stopped and started too many times in the past. We get nowhere when we keep starting over, we take two steps back for every one step forward we make."
She adds that gang violence has repercussions beyond what some people call "criminals shooting criminals." She says she is also worried about "police officers in the line of fire, children and babies getting hit by stray bullets, and elderly people who are afraid to sit on their front porch."
GIRLS GONE WILD
Judge Bailey has seen a lot of changes in her 30 years at Juvenile Court. When she started, she didn't see that many young females in trouble with the law. But today it's not unusual to see a docket crowded with teen girls.
"They're having these babies at age 13, 14, 15, and sometimes they have the same 'baby daddy' as another girl. So they fight. And when they fight, they're vicious. They use scissors, box cutters, pencils, whatever they can get their hands on; they just go at it."
8-YEAR-OLDS CHARGED WITH RAPE
Plus there are more new faces in her courtroom, literally. When she started, it seemed like only teens populated her courtroom. Sadly, she now sees trouble starting at the elementary level. "We're seeing younger children, eight and nine years old charged with rape. This isn't something they're learning at school. These are usually children who have been perpetrated against themselves."
GRANDPARENTS ON DRUGS
She traces most of the problems not to schools, but to families. Most of the children she sees have unstable home lives. She says very few have a mother and father under the same roof. Often they answer to grandparents, which presents a new set of problems.
"We used to be able to count on grandparents as the next level of support, but now they're often on drugs themselves; that's been increasing for the past 10 to 15 years." She adds, "So many of these children might have one person in their lives who is reliable, maybe an aunt, or an older sibling. Schools take a lot of heat, but they're doing the best they can. We have a lot of teachers who have to serve as substitute parents, because these children have no one who can fill that role at home."
No matter how hard police and court officials try to stay ahead of the latest crimes and trends, the cycles of crime keep changing.
"When I started here, we had so many children of alcoholics. Then we had the crack babies, and sometimes we still do. Now we're seeing the meth babies. There are so many children having children. And at home, they are not taught to respect authority."
SOCIAL MEDIA FIGHTS
Judge Bailey now sees many issues caused by technology that didn't exist a few years ago. She cites the internet, social media, and the ever increasing drama and danger related to cell phones. She has a message for parents who are giving their kids phones at age 10, 11, or 12.
"You should not do that," she said. "People talk about safety concerns, but the dangers outweigh the advantages. These kids get in the chat rooms, put all their information on there, they post pictures of where they are, where they live, they tell where they're going to shop, or eat, or go on vacation, they post their personal information, and that's all these predators need."
As for Facebook and other social media sites, she sighs and says, "Oh yes. We've had our share of fights that started there. Again, it comes down to parents or a responsible adult having no idea of what that child is putting out there for the world to see."
TOO MANY BLACKS, TOO MANY POOR?
She says she has fielded plenty of criticism over the years.
"You're never going to make everyone happy," she said. "Some say we lock up too many kids, others say we don't lock up enough. Some say we have too many poor people in the system, too many black children. We deal with whoever is arrested. And yes, unfortunately, a lot of poor families and children get in trouble, but believe me, we have all income levels, all colors, we see them all."
FUNDING CUTS HURT
She laments funding cuts of programs and positions that once played an important role in the juvenile judicial system.
"We used to have truant officers in here every day, finding kids on the streets when they should have been in school, and they would hold the parents responsible," she said. "We used to see social workers, who basically lived in our building, making sure these kids weren't falling through the cracks, working hand in hand with the schools. I would love to have them back."
Judge Bailey said she still believes that Hamilton County needs a juvenile correction facility and hopes legislators will address the issue in the near future. She said she has tried to convince lawmakers for many years, but funding has never been approved.
She said the current detention center holds only a limited number of children and is often near capacity. Due to federal law, only a brief period of time can pass from detainment until hearing, so the court is forced to keep juveniles moving through the system.
Judge Bailey noted the waiting area at Juvenile Court is usually full, keeping the staff and magistrates very busy.
AN OCCASIONAL REWARD
Still, her job is not without its rewards. She admits her happiest moments are when she's greeted by those she helped long ago, during the most difficult time of their lives.
"I've had them show up in their military dress uniforms, and they thank me because of how I handled their case many years ago. Even though I sentenced them, or made them pay a fine, they know it had to be done. I didn't want to see them in here again, back in trouble. It's a proud moment for me and my staff to see a few of those kids who have come back to thank us. It doesn't happen often enough though."
NEXT STEP FOR JUDGE BAILEY AND THE COURT
Ten candidates have applied to the Hamilton County Commission to succeed Judge Bailey at Juvenile Court. Whoever they decide to appoint will serve out the remainder of her term, which ends next year. As for Judge Bailey, she plans to get involved in volunteer work, and spend more time with her family.
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