Courtroom Is Classroom for Youth Corps

JUVENILE Court Judge June Gonsalves is teaching kids about the courts.

Her audience is a group of quiet Boston public high school students, seated in a stately courtroom of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. As Judge Gonsalves explains to them the role of a jury, she asks them, "Do you think you guys could sit as jurors?" Not one hand is raised.

When she then asks if anyone in the class feels he or she would not make a good juror, two hands go up. The girl who responds says she wouldn't be a good juror because she would be afraid of making a wrong decision.

The students' ambivalence and timidity is not unexpected. Indeed, many people are intimidated by the complex United States judicial system. And these young people in particular - inner-city students from the troubled public city school system - may not have had the best training on the US justice system.

But the hope is that by the end of this program they will be more familiar with it.

Sponsored by the Massachusetts state supreme court, the Supreme Judicial Youth Corps includes weekly classes in the courtroom followed by an eight-week internship program during the summer. The program started last year and was so successful, it received a national merit award from the American Bar Association (ABA), which is headquartered in Chicago.

"I could fairly say it exceeded all expectations in terms of what the students got out of it, in terms of understanding the course plus their work experience," says Nancy Waggner, co-coordinator of the program.

In the wake of Los Angeles rioting that followed the verdict in the Rodney King-police brutality case, it is an especially opportune time to educate inner-city youths about the judicial system, say legal education specialists.

The King case verdict "invited and encouraged a lot of people to take a second look at and find out more about the institution and process," says Cynthia Canary, who works in Chicago on an ABA commission that addresses public education about the law.

The Judicial Youth Corps is the first court-sponsored program of its kind in the country, say organizers. What makes the program unique from other judicial training programs is the combination of education and on-the-job experience. In July and August, students are assigned in two-person teams to court offices around Boston. The jobs, which are paid internships, involve mostly clerical work. But the work experience is as valuable as the education, says Ms. Waggner.

"They weren't just hidden in a back file room dusting off old files. They were really at some counters in clerks' offices and really participating in the true work at that office," says Waggner.

The work also allows kids to develop a close relationship with their supervisors. In last year's program, a superior court judge let interns sit with him on the bench as he was conducting trials and hearings. Jobs last four days per week, with one day of class on Friday. Students from last year's program say they benefited from the work experience.

"A lot of people think that everyone involved in the courts are just there to punish you, but seeing it up close and actually meeting these people I see they actually try to help more than hurt you," wrote student Michael Ashman in an assessment of last year's program. "Another thing I liked about the program was getting to meet with the judges. ... Talking to these judges helped me see a judge is just an ordinary person ...."

"I had never been in a court- room before and it was real exciting," writes Jacqueline Hertello, another student in last year's program. "...I had the opportunity to spend two days in probation [proceedings]. This is the place where I saw the reality of the courts. I learned how much power the law has over people who have broken it, what probation officers have to deal with, and what the police deal with."

Kids don't learn much about the courts in school, says Joan Kenney, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

"They get a smattering of how the justice system works in their social studies classes. But it may be a chapter at that," she says.

Thirty-six high school juniors, from 16 different Boston schools, are participating in this year's Youth Corps program. Students are taught by judges, lawyers, probation officers, and other law professionals. They study such topics as criminal law, juvenile law, small claims, housing issues, and mediation. Students also participate in mock trials, field trips, and an essay competition. A teacher training program on the judicial system is also part of the program.

Organizers asked school headmasters to select one or two students who may be interested in applying to the program. Applicants need only two things: good attendance and passing grades.

"We look for a mix of kids so that they have varying degrees of abilities and backgrounds," says Waggner.

Dianne Singletary, a student in this year's program from the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, says she wants to pursue a law-related career. "It's an experience for me to learn," she says. "I'm thinking about going into politics in the future after I graduate from high school."

Judge Gonsalves says she sees many young people come into her juvenile courtroom who don't understand the system. In most cases, she says, they come from families that can't afford to hire lawyers. "Most of them that come in front of me [in the courtroom] say, `This is not my system. You're not about me.' This [program] is trying to show that fairness and justice exist," she says.

Mabel McKinney-Browning, who works on a youth education committee for the ABA in Chicago, says there are many law-related education programs for students around the country. But Massachusetts has been on the cutting edge of a new emphasis on the court system.

"Before the Los Angeles situation, students have always asked questions about the justice system and whether or not it was fair," she says. "Those questions have increased and the only way we can really begin to struggle with the answers is to work with them both inside and outside the justice system."

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