To ensure truthful testimonies, Roman officials routinely beat witnesses before they were called to testify. Perhaps the Great Empire believed preemptive beatings would steer witnesses away from any preconceived schemes. Or maybe Rome reasoned witnesses would be too exhausted to conjure up any lies after being pummeled like a pine tree standing up to an avalanche.
Today’s judicial system may not be as physically abusive, but it can be just as torturous to distracted teenage minds.
Kim Rice, Volunteer Maryland Coordinator for Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP), places three teenagers in assorted chairs in her office on the top floor of Baltimore’s old Grammar School No. 1, now-Maryland Bar Headquarters. The HVAC-sized copier next to her door hums in a disjointed pattern and emits enough heat to send Rice to her silver thermostat throughout the day. Soft alternative rock streams out of two, white computer speakers. The black-rimmed wall-clock has its hands stationed at 8:36, exactly four hours ahead of this afternoon meeting.
These Baltimore juveniles, each charged with non-violent, non-threatening misdemeanor offenses, elected to participate in CLREP’s Teen Court, an alternative-justice program that seeks to educate and reprimand rather than simply the latter. All defendants - who must range from 11 to 17-years-old and plead guilty to the charges against them - go to trial in front of a judge and a jury of their peers at the Eastside Courthouse. Sanctions are delivered by the adolescent adjudicators and include community service hours, therapy sessions, apology letters and Teen Court participation.
is a different kind of justice - it's restorative justice.
CLREP Volunteer Maryland
Before the Thursday, February 19, meeting, these students only knew Teen Court from a defendant’s perspective, but now they are respondents, joining a mix of 45-50 other teenagers (some volunteers, some court-ordered) that meet at the courthouse every alternating Thursday evening. Now, they’ll view the trial from the juror’s box and look at peers sitting in the same defendant’s chair they did. Now, they are the system rather than being of the system.
It is a magical event for those involved. “You have to see it for yourself,” says CLREP Community Outreach Coordinator Leslie Wright. “There is always a teachable moment at Teen Court.”
Rice found herself in one of these moments at the meeting, one week before the teenage-trio starts their mandated jury service. She entered the jury training session with a few points of emphasis, though she focused on enlightening the kids to the intricacies of our legal system that aren’t grasped through a civics textbook.
CLREP’s Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Kim Rice reviews the rules of Teen Court with three respondents.
“Teen Court is a different kind of justice – it’s restorative justice,” Rice tells her students, who nod in that typical teenage appeasement. But the 2006 Cornell University graduate doesn’t settle for this subdued acknowledgement; Rice digs deeper.
Once the introductory information has been covered, Rice unearths murky topics that jurors face, like aggravating and mitigating factors, and perjury. The naturally inquisitive youth throw her tutorial into a quagmire of questions, but, with her head on a swivel, Rice directly answers each inquiry. It’s a light-bulb moment for the teenagers.
“Sometimes it’s difficult,” Rice later admits, “but you have to figure out the best way to reach them.”
She didn’t necessarily have to incorporate that type of outreach during her year-long teaching assignment in Changhua, Taiwan, a city situated along the heavily developed western coastline of the Pacific Island.
“There is a strong culture of education,” says Rice. “It sounds like a stereotype but it’s not. It’s reflected in governmental policies and the length of the school day.”
Around 4:30 p.m. each school day, students ranging from 8 to 14-years-old sat in her classroom at the Boushiban, an extracurricular learning center, ready to begin their English lesson.
Raised in suburban-Connecticut and only seven months removed from Cornell, Rice adapted surprisingly well. She reveled in scooters motoring through the city like ants on an ant farm; toured Buddhist monuments that took up city blocks; and adjusted to the pollution-haze hanging above residents’ heads like a massive umbrella.
Coming to Baltimore in October 2008 as a member of the Volunteer Maryland organization, an AmeriCorps program of the Governor’s Office, she wasn’t expecting as great a change as she originally expected heading to Taiwan. But her tenure here has been greatly educational.
“Learning what kids at Teen Court face,” says Rice, who chose the CLREP position because of Teen Court, “it’s an extremely different culture than the one I grew up in. I respect them for what they have to deal with.”
Rice has noticed the struggle the Teen Court kids face everyday.
“There is a written law that says one thing, but doesn’t always keep them safe,” notes Rice. “And then you have the street law that says a completely different thing.”
The barrier Teen Court must hurdle is far greater than the English-Chinese obstacle Rice encountered in Taiwan. But the bridge is being built from both sides.
“Teen Court empowers youth to start making better choices,” says Wright, “and to become proactive in the community.”