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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

S.F. Study: Immigration Judges More Burned Out Than Prison Wardens

Posted By on Wed, Jul 1, 2009 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge What happens when judges' job burnout level gets too high? You don't want to know.
  • What happens when judges' job burnout level gets too high? You don't want to know.
According to a just-published survey of 96 U.S. immigration judges, the men and women deciding delicate asylum cases are stressed and burned-out to the point that the term "asylum" begins to have unpleasant connotations.

The U.C. San Francisco study claims that judges are rampantly suffering from "secondary traumatic stress" and job burnout -- at higher levels than prison wardens or hospital doctors -- and this affects their decision-making abilities. Good decision-making, last we checked, is still fairly high on a judge's priorities list.

The judges took a pair of psychological tests: The Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale and the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (which is not a gauge of jaw-related maladies from overuse of chewing tobacco). These are not desirable tests to score high on -- but the judges did.

"Secondary Traumatic Stress," incidentally, is essentially the experiencing of trauma through osmosis, and is a common enough problem with social workers and others who deal first-hand with those going through life's worst. The study -- which just appeared in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal -- notes that Secondary Traumatic Stress could lead to "compassion fatigue," in which judges lose any sympathy for asylum applicants.

Lead author Dr. Stuart Lustig, a UCSF professor, said that overstressed, traumatized judges may be affected in two ways: They could grow too lenient and grant asylum rampantly or become cold-hearted grinches who scoff at wrenching tales of woe and persecution (not to cast aspersions on Lustig's study, but it sounds like he's predicting it might rain tomorrow or it might not; this seems a bit like betting on both boxers in the bout).

In any event, Lusting notes that he was expecting to find high levels of stress and burnout -- but not this high. Among the survey's many suggestions to alleviate situations that drive immigration judges to find novel and improper uses for their gavels: More support staff -- such as law clerks, bailiffs, and interpreters -- for overburdened judges; additional administrative time for judges to research country conditions; and, last but not least, the paper suggests the Department of Justice establish a "network of trained facilitators" to connect immigration judges to one-another in a group setting, where they can provide "mutual support and the perspectives of their peers who are also dealing with daily exposure to abject human misery and cruelty."

Hmm, we thought that was what you did over a drink after work hours -- without any sort of "facilitator."

Since all of the above would cost money, we're going to guess the government is going to go with Plan B: Stay the course.


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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more


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