I wish each of you and those you love a happy and prosperous 2016.
With two months between each of my articles, there is never enough room to tell you about all of the accomplishments of the Barristers – I can’t keep pace with our tremendous team. So I dedicate this article to our ongoing project: Teen Court.
In a previous blog post you can read about what Teen Court is, so I don’t need to explain it again here. Rather, I think you may find it useful to know about what Teen Court means and represents to me:
In law school, I served for a summer with the Alternate Public Defender’s office in El Cajon, outside of San Diego. For those outside the criminal field, the APD handles cases where an inter-defendant conflict prohibits the Public Defender’s office from representing both defendants. My assignment was a capital murder case. Our client waited behind the wheel while his buddy ran inside a gas station to steal some beer; the buddy decided to shoot three people, two died. Our client was 19 at the time and faced death under accomplice liability for felony murder.
At 21 years old, our client was found guilty and it was my job to make sure he spent his life in prison, rather than having it ended by the State. Drudging up mitigating evidence, it became rapidly clear that our client had lived a life in the System. He had been neglected by family and school. Cast aside by society, he spent his developmental life in institutions. From his first juvenile arrest and conviction, he lived as an outcast – it shaped his existence. He currently serves life in prison and will never see the outside; his face and story never left me.
Teen Court gives us a chance to prevent this. Here, young accused have a unique opportunity: stand before your peers, submit and comply with their sentencing, and you won’t be “in the System.” Sentences are designed to offer counseling, structure, and guidance where there was none. And a clear record is the carrot for successful completion. Could my former client’s life have been different if he had counseling opportu- nities and his first offense wiped from his record?
There’s more: Across from the accused sit twelve young people. Through Teen Court they have learned their role in our judicial system (and its place in our larger civics system). They’ve learned about strong, smart questioning, how to ask follow-up questions, and how to critically analyze answers – skills many older people lack. Through participation, they prepare themselves to be responsible members of our society.
Finally, our Barrister proctor volunteers get a chance to be role models. A chance to credibly say, “If you want, you can be a lawyer, or a judge.” Plus, they get consistent, long-term exposure to members of the judiciary. They help their judge conduct the proceedings. Perhaps, after building a relationship, they might request that the judge write a crucial reference – after all, they’ve demonstrated skills that make good lawyers and good people.
As you read this, we’ve already begun to provide key support to the LA Teen Court program. To find out how you can be a proctor, or help in any way, please contact me directly.
William S. Wenzel is a business and corporate attorney at The Law Offices of William S. Wenzel, APC. His office serves as outside general counsel for hire and can be contacted at 213 207 6885 or firstname.lastname@example.org.