A Day of Court
There are many misconceptions about the judicial system. Most are a result of a lack of knowledge about the Courts. To correct this, every Judge has a duty to become a teacher of the law.
In 1989, staff from the 52-1 District Court, working in a cooperative effort with local high school administrators, modified a program originally created by United States District Court Judge Bernard Friedman. The purpose of the program was to educate students about the basic operation of the third branch of government.
A cross section of representative criminal and small claims cases are chosen to highlight the how and the why of Court procedures. In selecting the criminal cases a secondary, but important focus is to feature crimes that young people often commit. Crimes involving theft, alcohol, and drugs are therefore emphasized.
These defendants are then asked if they will agree to have their case adjourned and heard at the high school. Only those defendants charged with a nonviolent crime and out on bond are considered. All defendants are informed that they can decline and will not be subject to any sanctions for so doing. They are also told that they may not receive any benefit. The defendants consent avoids any appearance of show trials and also reduces security concerns. The witnesses and victims are also invited to appear. If anyone is unwilling, then the case is not placed on the high school docket.
A letter is sent to the prosecutor requesting that an assistant prosecutor be present, an attorney is appointed to appear as the public defender, and a request for assistance is made to the local law enforcement agency for security and jail services. A courtroom is created on an auditorium stage in each of the area high schools. A bench is placed on a raised dais with tables for the prosecutor and defense. A witness stand and a central podium are also provided. Because this is truly a courtroom setting, all parties act accordingly. The students accept the courtroom atmosphere and are well behaved with little direction from the bench. Cases are scheduled to coincide with the high schools class periods. Generally, a preliminary examination and two misdemeanor pre-trials, two misdemeanor sentences, and a small claims action are scheduled. This allows students to observe a broad array of cases with time at the end of each session for questions.
At the end of each period, some students leave and new groups arrive. There are generally between 150 and 500 students observing each session.
After the day in court, written comments are requested from the high school administration, teachers, students, and any other interested parties. In the over ten years the 52-1 District Court has offered the Day of Court program, the questions and responses reflect an increased understanding of the justice system, along with a greater awareness of the consequences of criminal behavior.