Juvenile and family court judges should take a more preventive role by vocally addressing moral issues, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told a national gathering of juvenile court judges Monday.
"A judge does not need to vault over the wall between church and state to become a preacher of right and wrong," Elder Oaks said. "A judge needs only to consider the self-interest of the state or the judiciary in this time when such a high proportion of the court's business concerns issues of right and wrong, however we may identify them."
Elder Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, was the keynote speaker on "Children and Family First," the theme of the 63rd Annual Conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges at Snowbird. More than 300 judges and other legal professionals are taking part in workshops on topics ranging from child abuse to parental rights during the conference, which runs through Wednesday.
The council, established in 1937, is devoted to continuing the philosophy that children and adolescents are developmentally different from adults and need the specialized treatment and resources available through the juvenile courts, which were first established in 1899, according to information provided by the council.
In his address, Elder Oaks applauded the "balanced approach" by most juvenile and family courts to include appropriate measures of punishment and rehabilitation when dealing with youth offenders. But Elder Oaks also urged juvenile court judges to "seek faith leaders as resources to be involved in the process of reform."
"When individuals and families come before your court that have ties to their faith community, conscientious efforts should be made to involve their faith leaders in the process of change," Elder Oaks said. "Such religious support obviously cannot be required, but where acceptable to the person it should be a permissible option," he added.
Elder Oaks cited efforts by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to involve its members in issues that weigh heavily on the juvenile court system, including last week's renewed call for members to become foster parents.
Another way the faith community can become involved in a cooperative relationship with the juvenile courts is by forming interfaith councils "that would act as advisory boards to help the courts deal with family situations," Elder Oaks said. Those councils could call upon their churches and synagogues to invite members to serve as foster families or adoptive parents, to establish alcoholic anonymous groups or to act as mentors to individuals and families.
"Faith communities depend on the courts to hand down judgments that will support and strengthen the role of the family. Courts can also help people entering the system make appropriate changes in their lives by rendering judgments that recognize and support individual and family faith-based traditions," Elder Oaks said.
"If the religious community could be more effective in preaching right and wrong, this would hopefully reduce the number of cases that come to the courts for adjudication," he said.
But Elder Oaks also said he envisions judges speaking out about those things that are "wrong" and not just "illegal" to broad audiences beyond juvenile offenders, including parents, educators, students and civic groups.
"These courts' primary functions are corrective, but I maintain that they should also have a preventive role," Elder Oaks said. "If knowledgeable judges could speak out to shore up the moral foundations of families and the moral consciousness of individuals, it would surely reinforce our efforts to put 'children and family first.' "