PROFILE: Juvenile Judge Jim Kramer: Their best chance

By Alec Etheredge

Cloaked in a black robe with his glasses on the bridge of his nose, Juvenile Court Judge Jim Kramer sits behind a mahogany desk on the judge’s bench sifting through docket after docket. “That’s two of the first three that are going home with their parents,” he pronounces.

Kramer looks back down at the remainder of the dockets, and continues examining each one carefully, while also carrying on light conversation with attorneys in the courtroom representing clients. After sending each attorney on their way just after 11 a.m., Kramer looks up. “We closed 12 of 14 cases this morning, a very unusual morning,” he says.

But as he utters those words with delight, his eyes show the disappointment of the two that were unable to be closed.

Sadly, most days, that’s reality as Kramer has to make the stressful decision of a juvenile returning to the home of a parent or not, and that’s just one of many difficult decisions he has to make as Shelby County’s juvenile court judge.

A judge who cares

Sitting in his office chair, Kramer reclines back surrounded by University of Alabama memorabilia, and sifts through a pack of cards bearing the words “Happy Birthday” in cursive writing in a cheery purple. “I fill these out for foster kids and send the cards to them on their birthday just to remind them that I care about them and how they are doing,” he explains.

“Each card says ‘thinking of you’ on it,” he adds. “On the back, it says, ‘People say it’s the best time of your life being young,’ but I make sure to let them know that it’s not and it will get better.”

Kramer wants to make sure these kids know they are loved even as they have been displaced from their homes because of parents who couldn’t care for them for a variety of reasons, including crime and drugs. DHR shares a list of foster kids and their birthdays with him each month, and he takes it from there.

Reminiscing about the cards he has filled out over the years, Kramer also recalls his reason for wanting to become a juvenile judge. “One of the first cases I ever took when I first started practicing law was a juvenile dependent case,” Kramer says. “That one went all the way through the termination of parental rights, and I was a part of that case from the very start. I basically knew that was the area I wanted to practice in at that point.”

He pauses as emotions from that day 35 years ago resurface before he continues. “We’re not trying to lock them up or put them away, we’re trying to train the child to do right,” Kramer says. “I hate when people refer to the criminal laws as they apply to juveniles. The juvenile is never convicted of any offense. They are found to be a delinquent child. That’s the offense. We want them to get a second chance to do right.”

Their best chance

As Kramer sets the birthday cards back down on his desk under his computer, he starts to explain his daily routine and determining whether a parent gets to keep a child if they’ve messed up and how to find a safe place for a child who has been abused or neglected.

Some of the hardest days for Kramer involve dependency cases where he decides whether a child will be allowed back in the care of the parents or whether to place them with another relative or in foster care.

And, as Kramer says, it’s not just the decision of possibly tearing a family apart that’s always the toughest part; it’s seeing parents not care. “Parents have a responsibility to do their part,” Kramer says. “I had a truancy case recently where the parent wanted to make it all about the child. I had to keep cutting her off and tell her we weren’t focusing on the child, but her. It was a younger child that had to rely on the mother.”

And with dependency cases as two-thirds of Kramer’s docket, he sees parents that aren’t fit to take care of children every week. “I was doing a termination of parental rights case one time, and there are people that are going to be affected not paying attention to what I’m saying because they’re on their phones texting,” Kramer says. “I’m deciding whether or not they’ll get to keep their child, and they aren’t even paying attention to what is being said.

“It’s frustrating when you know you can get a good result if one person would just do a little more, but they just can’t get there. It’s never easy, but I think particularly for the drug users, it’s hard for them to give it up. I truly believe it’s harder to give up the drug than their kid sometimes.”

For Kramer, that’s a hard reality, but he is proud of his staff and Shelby County for taking the initiative to place kids in the proper care. “Every county has children that are abused and neglected, and we are identifying those so we can do better for the children,” he says. “I had a judge from Hale County tell me several years ago they only had one child in foster care. He said, ‘That scares me to death,’ because in Hale County, he knows there are children that are abused and neglected and nobody is looking at them.”

That’s one of the main reasons Kramer says he got involved in juvenile court after deliberating his future choices 36 years ago. “We want to make sure the kids are getting what they are supposed to be getting,” Kramer says. “Whether that’s care or instruction. If everybody does their part, then the system will work.”

Understand right from wrong 

With the light shining through the pane of his office window, a ray of sunshine hits one of many letters that surround Kramer on his bookshelf in his old office. The letters haven’t made the move to his new office yet, but the sentimental value still holds true.

“I basically get a letter every time I have a delinquent docket from a kid in detention that says, ‘I learned my lessons and I want to go home,’” Kramer says. “I address something from that letter to them in court so they know I’ve read it.”

From the bench Kramer lets the child know he’s glad they are doing better, but also makes sure they know there are consequences and the punishment is for that consequence. “My main hope when I see them is that they understand what they did and that it was wrong,” Kramer says. “I don’t see that a lot in society today, particularly in the younger generations. That entitlement is like ‘If you don’t give it to me, I’m going to do this.’ A lot don’t realize they have to earn things.”

Kramer says video games, virtual reality, social media and cell phones are the number one problem right now because of what they do to form the mind. All of those platforms give a false sense of what life is actually like. “I see domestic violence cases with kids actually fighting parents, one because they see that from their parents a lot of time, but the number one starter of any argument in the home right now between kids and parents is when their cell phone is taken away. They can’t live without it and have that technology in their hands from a young age. It’s dangerous.”

The first time he sees a juvenile on an alcohol- or drug-related charge, he gives them a deferred prosecution, which requires six months of supervision by a probation officer and several classes that help with building character and teaching the dangers of drugs and alcohol. If the juvenile completes that, the case is dropped.

If it happens a second time, they get put on the docket and come before the court, where the option of a consent decree is put on the table. Again, at the end of six months, they will have the ability to have the case if they do what is asked of them.

At that point if they violate, probation becomes the next step, but the last resort is the Department of Youth Services, which can serve as a boot camp or a general juvenile facility.

“It’s our nature to want to help them,” says Chief Probate Officer LeAnn Rigney. “We see kids all the time that may break the law, but a lot of times when you peel that back and look at why, it’s because there’s something broken that needs to be resolved.”

Watching so many struggle with doing wrong, Kramer decided to be proactive—one of his favorite parts of the job—by bringing the Character in Action awards to Shelby County. The awards honor one student from each school in every school district in the county that have displayed respect, courage, responsibility and kindness throughout the year.

Standing with a select group of children, Kramer looks at each in the eye and tells them how much he appreciates the good they are doing before shaking their hands and taking a picture in a moment of happiness for all of them.

“I love it!” Kramer says. “It gives me the ability to see that there are kids doing great things on their own. They’re voluntarily doing Special Olympics or they’re working with underprivileged children or they go to special needs classes and care for those kids. That’s what society needs. I get to see those making good decisions.

“I like to try and let them know I appreciate that. I see a lot of kids that have done wrong, so I want to reward those that are stepping up to do good and make their community and school a better place to be.”