POCATELLO — The juvenile justice system has changed dramatically since Magistrate Judge Bryan Murray first took the bench in 1993.
“Not just in Idaho but nationwide,” he told EastIdahoNews.com. “When I started, they were still locking kids up in adult jails.”
After nearly three decades, Murray is retiring, effective July 1. But that does not mean he will stop serving.
“I’m moving to senior status, so I’ll still be a senior judge. Instead of working 120%, I’ll work 20%,” he laughed.
In the 29 years since he was selected to serve the Bannock County Juvenile Court, Murray has overseen changes to how the system views and handles children.
When he took the position, children were treated like “small adults,” he said, rather than still-growing and underdeveloped kids who need compassion and understanding.
Since then, new mental health assessment and treatment programs geared to helping kids have been developed and implemented. And the Bannock County Juvenile Court has adopted an education-first approach.
Murray has been working to help children all of his life.
Born and raised in Pocatello, he was a scoutmaster for 10 years and a lifeguard and river guide at scout camp.
He graduated from Pocatello High School. After receiving degrees from Idaho State University and the University of Idaho School of Law, Murray began his career as a public defender in the Bannock County Juvenile Court.
His goal has always been to be a positive male role model while helping children find productive outlets. Misguided youths, he explained, become adults with nothing to lose.
“If we help them create a good life, they’ve got something to lose, they’re not going to want to go out and commit crimes and cause problems,” he said.
Not long after becoming a judge, Murray learned that the system had no answers for treating mental illness in children.
One child Murray sentenced to juvenile detention was biting chunks of himself off and eating them. The child, and both parents, suffered from apparent mental health issues.
Murray was able to set an assessment for the child. While the therapist agreed that there were issues, they said there was nothing that could be done because the patient was “just a kid.”
Now, Murray is proud to say, there is a complete assessment done on every child who enters detention. Kids who need assistance get it, “and that’s fantastic,” he said.
There were other shortcomings Murray quickly addressed.
Rather than viewing juvenile offenders as criminals, he approached each hearing as an individual circumstance. Often, he said, kids need help, not punishment.
“When I’m sentencing a kid, I’m not sentencing the crime. I’m looking at (the kid’s) behavior and asking, ‘why did they do this?’,” he said, adding that kids make poor decisions without fully understanding them. “You don’t have to punish that out of them; sometimes, you’ve got to help them.”
Murray believes the juvenile court’s goal is to prevent future, more costly crimes, not to lock up or fine kids for making poor decisions.
One of Murray’s many additional issues with the existing system was that kids were punished by removal from school. But he believes education is as essential to skirting the criminal lifestyle as anything.
So, he helped create the New Horizons High School — an alternative school that helps children with troubled pasts earn a high school diploma.
Murray still attends the New Horizons graduation ceremony annually, something he called the “big payday.”
The success of the program can be quantified, he added. The very first graduating class was about six students. Last year, the school handed out 120 diplomas, according to Murray.
Murray was also instrumental in developing the Bannock County Truancy Court, Juvenile Drug Court and Family Treatment Drug Court.
Murray’s work helping kids, especially those in need of a positive figure, has always been something he is happy to bring home.
While Murray was modest in discussing his career, his wife and daughter were happy to speak to the many things he has done.
Lorie, Bryan’s wife, told EastIdahoNews.com he would regularly find stories involving children in the news or through word of mouth. He would find out where the child went to school and send along a handwritten note of congratulations or encouragement.
“I still get people who walk up to me, ‘My kid got a letter like seven years ago, it was so meaningful,’ all the small things add up,” she said.
Bryan’s daughter, Seleta Talbot, said she admired everything her parents did for the community. And she honors those contributions by trying to represent the same light while raising her children in Idaho Falls.
At the encouragement of Seleta and Lorie, Bryan offered an anecdote that the family believes represents the good a juvenile judge can do.
As Bryan detailed, he was recently approached by a man he recognized as the adult version of a child he had once sentenced to detention.
The man told Bryan he recognized him because he thinks about Bryan daily. He continued, saying he sees the judge every day in a tattoo on his shoulder.
That tattoo is a recreation of the day the man was taken from court to detention. Sure enough, Bryan saw himself in the tattoo, sitting on the bench behind the boy. The man told Bryan that it was the day his life changed.
“You got my attention; you saved my life,” the man told Bryan.
And that was just one of the many stories he could remember — to go along with what is most certainly others that have since been forgotten.
Now, after 29 years of impacting change, Murray is taking a back seat to his recently announced replacement, Anson Call.
And there is still much work to be done, Murray said.
Asked what in particular needs to be addressed by the Idaho juvenile justice system, Murray said the immediate focus going forward should be on drug treatment. As-is, the system treats drug use among children similar to the way it does with adults.
The best way to find what works is through research, Murray said. Treating juvenile offenders has never been as simple as throwing everything you can find at them. Some the tactics work, some don’t, and some make matters worse, while all cost the taxpayers’ money.
Murray plans to continue to be a teacher and advisor for the next generation of judges and the youths of Bannock County.
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