Putting children first
Judge Zimmerman aims to root out cause of problem, reduce incarceration.
It takes less than two hours in the courtroom of Fourth Judicial Circuit Judge Stacey Zimmerman to determine that she may have one of the hardest jobs in Northwest Arkansas. In that amount of time, Judge Zimmerman conducts business on three different cases involving juvenile delinquency charges. It becomes abundantly clear from the first case that the issues on parade are not as simple as a teenager making a mistake and being punished for it. These cases are messy, with repercussions that spread like cracks in thin ice, touching every member of the family, many of whom are in the courtroom with their child, grandchild, brother or sister.
“He definitely does not need to go to DYS,” a father pleads from the stand when Judge Zimmerman asks him what he thinks needs to happen now that his 16-year-old son has multiple probation violations in his case history. Sending his son to DYS would mean sending him to one of the large correctional facilities within the Division of Youth Services purview, which would mean a minimum stay of six months. “He does not need to learn to be a worse person than he is now.”
The son, for his part, is stoic, speaking up only to answer questions posed to him by the judge, except for the moment when he voices support for his mother, who tested positive for illegal drugs recently.
“She’s clean, Your Honor, she’s doing good,” he says quietly.
Judge Zimmerman asks the father why he thinks his son’s efforts to follow the court’s directions have failed so many times in the past.
“He doesn’t think I will fight for him to get better,” he answers, voice shaking. “And I will. Fight for him.”
During this, surely one of the most fraught moments of this family’s life, business around the
“Judge Zimmerman is effective in what she does on so many different levels. She takes into account the entire family, she educates herself on best practices and what is trending in the juvenile justice world. She is not afraid to take chances on youth and their families while leading with a very firm hand. She is compassionate beyond words.” — JDC Director Jeane Mack
small room continues to bustle. Traffic comes in and out of three different doors. A printer churns out a report. Small, two-person conferences are held quietly in the corners of the room. Judge Zimmerman never loses her laser focus on the adolescent in front of her or the details of his case.
“I’m going to give you one more chance,” Zimmerman says at the end of the hearing. The young man will serve 60 days in Northwest Arkansas at the Juvenile Detention Center but will not be sent to the larger facility. But, she says, if he makes one more move to violate his probation again, “I will send you to DYS and not lose any sleep about it.
“Now go give your daddy a hug.”
KIDS FIRST, JAIL LAST
The morning’s events offer a glimpse of one of Zimmerman’s most defining philosophies as a juvenile judge: Sending juvenile offenders to detention centers without making an effort to eradicate the root causes of the problem is a mistake for the child, for the family and for society as a whole.
“There might be a kid that needs to be locked up, because they’re a danger to themselves or someone else or society,” she says. “But a lot of times, they need drug counseling or there was poor parenting and the parents needed parent counseling. You can come up with a solution for that child that you couldn’t have come up with if they ended up in adult court, and that’s what I want to prevent — having that child end up in prison.
“A lot of times, people think that juvenile court isn’t a real court,” she continues. “But to me, it’s one of the most important courts. If you can help that child, that family, then, down the road. they’re not going to be in the system. That’s a win-win for everybody.”
Zimmerman says she was drawn to work on the juvenile side of the law almost immediately after finishing with her legal education. She completed her undergraduate studies at Texas Tech within two and a half years and started a master’s program in agriculture economics that she finished, concurrently, with her law degree. After that, she headed to the University of Arkansas where she earned a Master of Law degree and went to work for a local law firm.
“My good friend Tonyia Tannehill was the case coordinator at juvenile court, and she was looking for volunteers to represent kids,” Zimmerman recalls. “I really wanted to get some courtroom experience, so I volunteered.
“People either love juvenile court or they hate it. I found that I really liked it.”
A few years later, she was offered the position of deputy prosecuting attorney and accepted it on the condition that she could be assigned to juvenile court. “[Then-prosecuting attorney] Terry Jones was taken aback. They had a lot of turnover in juvenile
court — a lot of people use it as a stepping stone.” For Zimmerman, though, it was home. She would spend nearly 10 years dividing her time between her position as deputy prosecuting attorney and running her own private practice that focused on family law.
Then, she started thinking bigger.
“I really had found my niche,” she says. “I thought it was important in my life to work with kids. In juvenile court, there’s a lot of room [for] creativity. What works for one kid and gets his or her attention might not work for another. So I prided myself on finding out about the kid, even though I was the prosecutor, and figuring out what was best for that kid in order to get him help. That’s what drove me to be a judge. To be able to actually make a change for that child and that family.”
Zimmerman was 34 and pregnant with her son when she started her campaign. It wasn’t easy. Running for circuit court judge for Washington and Madison counties meant there was a lot of ground to cover, and she continued working for her own private practice during the campaign. The traditional role of candidate wasn’t always easy for her.
“I didn’t even like selling Girl Scout cookies as a Girl Scout because I didn’t want to intrude on people’s time,” says Zimmerman with a laugh. “I like visiting with people, but I don’t want to ask them for something because that makes me feel weird.”
But Zimmerman would soon find that the biggest hurdle for her to clear was the old-fashioned mindsets she encountered on the campaign trail.
“I was big and huge and pregnant, and I went around to the powers-that-be in town and to all of the progressive types of people I thought would be really supportive of a female judge,” Zimmerman says. At the time, no woman had yet been elected as a circuit court judge. “I was amazed at the number of men who told me that once I had that baby, I would want to stay home. I wouldn’t want to be a judge. Mostly the good ol’ guys, older gentlemen, would say, ‘You’re too young and purty to be a judge. You wouldn’t be mean enough.’”
She pauses for a moment.
“I ran against a sitting judge, and I carried both counties,” she says firmly.
And in the process discovered that, instead of making her want to stay home, the birth of her son motivated her even further to fight for the abused and neglected children whose stories passed in front of her bench on a weekly basis. Along with the juvenile delinquency cases, Zimmerman hears cases of parental neglect and abuse and has to make difficult decisions concerning termination of parental rights.
“I was always proactive and pro-child,” she says. “But when you have your own children, the horrific things I was seeing people do to their own children … it just magnifies your horror and disbelief.
“I remember when I was a brand new judge, and my son was around 3. We had a little girl who came into foster care because her mother had held her down in scalding water. She was the same age as my son, so every time I would bathe my son …”
There is a long pause as Zimmerman struggles to maintain her composure.
“I would think about that little girl,” she finishes. “I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. Those are the cases that stick with you.”
LESSONS AS A MOM
Zimmerman, who calls her son her “biggest accomplishment,” was a single mother from the time he was 2 until his teenage years.
“There was a lot of juggling, being a judge and a mother,” she says. “I have a heavy docket — 1,000 cases a year — and some days I would hear 80 cases a day to get it cleared. And not having family in Northwest Arkansas, it was kind of rough.” Still, she says, son Colton played four or five sports as he was growing up, and she managed to get him to and from practices and watched as many games as she could. She saw the benefit that Colton received from organized sports and that realization would later inspire some of the diversion programs she championed as a judge.
“I was amazed at how sports taught so many life lessons to Colton — being respectful, self-discipline,” she says. “I could see how the whole ‘team approach’ and relying on others in sports … I got to see that in action with my son, and some of the programs that we started later have that team approach with positive male and female role models, which I think sports gives to kids.”
Developing and instituting these programs is where Zimmerman shines, say those that work with her closely. In her nearly 19 years on the bench, her particular talent has proven to be her creativity in taking into account the needs of the juvenile population she serves. She has been at the forefront of innovative initiatives that help reduce juvenile incarceration.
“With Judge Zimmerman allowing us to be creative in our efforts to keep the community safe while actively engaging in programming with our higher risk youth, we are having successes in youth not returning to the Juvenile Detention Center,” says JDC Director Jeane Mack, who has worked with Zimmerman for over 25 years. “[We are] teaching them that these are their communities [and emphasizing] the importance of re-establishing the trust from their communities by participating in community service projects and connecting with successful adults who, at one time, were intertwined with the juvenile justice system but successfully maneuvered through that part of their lives.” Zimmerman grows animated as she details the programs she’s helped introduce to the youth in the system.
“We expanded diversion programs,” says Zimmerman. “Diversion means your case is diverted out of court. You never come and see me.” Zimmerman worked with the Quorum Court to hire a diversion officer, who connects kids and families with services that would attempt to solve the problem without the child having to enter the juvenile court system.
“When I started in 1999, one of the things I saw was that there wasn’t a lot of community involvement with the kids that are in probation, our at-risk kids,” she says. “We needed real community service, where it meant something. So we partnered with different agencies in the late 1990s, and organizations like TASC [Teen Action and Support Center] really helped us find community projects for these kids to do that are meaningful. We’re getting kids tied in with the community, because the more they feel like they belong in the community, the better they’re going to do. We would much rather they feel like they belong than feel like they have to join a gang or do some kind of delinquent behavior.”
She also spearheaded efforts to expand programs for youth on probation: athletic programs, in which teens learned that exercise and healthy eating can have a profound effect on their mental and physical health; an outdoor adventure program, which helped to facilitate a sense of belonging; and Creating Family Connections classes, a 12-week course that teaches parents and kids the benefits of productive, healthy communication.
The most recent initiative she’s worked on is the Evening Reporting Center, a collaborative effort with The Jones Trust. Zimmerman learned of the idea through the Northwest Arkansas Juvenile Detention
Alternatives Initiative that she and Benton County Judge Tom Smith started.
“This center is for medium- to high-risk kids that were getting into the gang life,” Zimmerman says. “We have a gang problem in Northwest Arkansas — no one likes to say it, but we do — so how do we have these kids redirected, so that we don’t have drive-by shootings, we don’t have killings, and these kids don’t end up in prison?
“So Mike Gilbert and The Jones Trust said we could have a building down on Emma Street in Springdale, and the Washington County Quorum Court funded two new probation officers and a counselor to work with these kids.” Additional funding came from Endeavor Foundation, while TASC helps anchor the building by housing its Washington County office there.
“Most of the families I see are really good families, regardless of their income, political persuasion, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation — they are really good families,” Zimmerman says. “They might be in crisis: These kids may have an addiction, the parents may have an addiction. So having a program where the kids can walk right across the street from the Archer Center and sit there for an evening gets them off of the street, it gets them tutoring and counseling, they get speakers that teach them life skills.”
BOTH SIDES OF THE JOB
Successful programs like these are the sunnier side of a job that also has some darkness. Every four years, a campaign requires part of her focus and is, sometimes, hard fought.
“I have my proponents and my detractors,” she says. “I don’t really mince words. I will never talk about how I would rule on a particular case, because as a judicial candidate, you can’t talk about your personal opinions on this or that. You just have to follow the law. And the law is very clear in Arkansas: Juvenile victims are protected. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is, what religion their parents partake in, whether they’re gay, straight or whatever. In the past, I have ruled very strongly about juvenile victims’ rights and what cannot be disseminated. And when you’re in family court,
there’s a side that wins and a side that loses. That’s part of being a judge. You’re not going to please everyone, and you shouldn’t. It’s about the facts of the law.”
Zimmerman says the staff she works with within the system is key for keeping her feeling positive and productive in a job that has the potential to take such an emotional toll.
“I’m really proud about our juvenile court staff,” she says. “It’s a calling. I can’t say enough good about the people that work in juvenile court in Washington and Madison counties.”
Zimmerman also praises the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Northwest Arkansas, a nonprofit organization that assigns a volunteer to follow foster care children through the system and make periodic reports to the court.
“They make a huge difference to judges,” she says. “The CASA volunteer meets with the child and lets the court know what’s important for that child. It just means the world to some of these kids.”
And on particularly bad days, Zimmerman can turn and look at the wall behind her bench, where children’s illustrations and notes line the walls. “You are as sweet as a flower,” reads one, in the handwriting of a 6-yearold. The largest is framed, with a handmade quilt pattern as the background. It was given to Zimmerman by a family whose adoptions she has presided over. It reads, “Our family is like a big beautiful patchwork quilt, each of us different yet stitched together by love and the Honorable Stacey Zimmerman.”
“Most of the kids I see are really good kids, just making really bad choices,” she says. “I was at a restaurant, and a lady said, ‘Do you remember me? You were my judge. I was doing meth, and they locked me up. I went to rehab, and now I’m the manager of this restaurant. I have a child, and I’m clean and sober.’
”That’s why I do my job.”
“I think she’s the hardest working judge in the state. She has a willingness to work such long hours — and I mean really long hours. They go way into the night. Other judges have to do that sometimes, but that’s not the exception for her, it’s the rule.” — Judge John Lineberger