During my first week at Discovering Justice, I jumped right into the United States justice system by attending two different sentencing hearings. It was my first experience in a courtroom and my only knowledge about what to expect came from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. On TV, the sentencings I saw were very tense and the whole courtroom would be filled with people. In the first sentencing I saw the tension was apparent but I was one of five, including my supervisor, in the audience section of the room.
In a sentencing hearing, the job of the defense counsel is to humanize the defendant. Through letters from family and friends and personal statements, the defense displays the best version of the defendant. On TV, this gray area of a criminal having good qualities is rarely shown. However, it is a good lesson to remember that “good” people do “bad” things and “bad” people do “good” things. In most cases, the defendant was led down a path of crime because of many factors that they have no control over, such as poverty or lack of education. In the first sentencing, it was clear that this was the case. The defendant’s boyfriend had gotten her involved in a drug conspiracy, but it was clear that she was sorry for her actions and was trying to make sure she never got involved with criminal behavior again. In this sentencing, humanity was shining through; the judge moved the defendant’s self-reporting date to prison until after the start of school, so that she could get her kids settled into the school. It surprised me that the judge was so adamant and willing to be kind to the defendant. After witnessing that, I was reminded that even if we don’t always see it, the system can be human too.
That changed when the next day I went to a “Varsity Blues” sentencing for a former University of Southern California Assistant Soccer Coach who was involved in creating fake profiles for the children of the wealthy elite. I watched the experienced and expensive defense lawyer go on about how sorry the defendant is for her actions and how this behavior was totally out of character for her. As I sat there all I could think about was the juxtaposition between the defendant I was watching then and the defendant I had seen just days before. The defendant in front of me had no clear reason to commit her crime; she was in a good economic position, had a good and competitive job, and was surrounded by loving family and friends. But she was greedy and therefore took away the integrity of an entire athletic program and college admissions process. This defendant had the privilege of getting her family to come to court to further portray the amount of people who supported her and didn’t want to see her in jail. The other defendant had one family member present. The same judge that a few days earlier seemed to be seeping with kindness and humanity, sentenced the defendant to one year supervised release, fifty hours of community service, and forfeiture of about $130,000. For reference, I have to complete forty-eight hours of community service to graduate high school.
I left the courtroom angry; all my hope for change was gone. But then the rest of the week I was surrounded by people doing good, changemaking work in the cohort, the courthouse, and Discovering Justice. It is easy to see the biased and unfair situations and sulk about it but that will get us nowhere. My experience the first week inspired me to work hard and make as much change as I could in the short time I had at Discovering Justice and in the TEEN-JUST US program.