Learning about the Justice System
I was very nervous and having second thoughts throughout the week leading up to Teen JUST-US. By the end of day one, however, I was delighted to have been chosen for the program. I felt that my supervisor wasn’t just really nice, but really understood and cared about me. My internship site was Discovering Justice, a civics education organization located inside the Boston Federal Courthouse. As someone with a mind for History, Politics, and Government, the courthouse was the perfect place for me.
I have had a lot of cool experiences at the courthouse including meeting with federal judges, working on an assortment of projects for Discovering Justice, attending and giving tours of the courthouse, and watching numerous legal proceedings. After nearly six weeks, I don’t want to leave. There were some, however, who didn’t have that choice.
Don’t worry, I wasn’t naive, I knew about mass incarceration, class and race disparities, and unfair sentencing laws. However, I had never before seen a sentence get handed down to a defendant. I am a realist, and I know that people who break the law should be punished. Punishment, however, should be just and should never exceed the crime.
Many criminals can be effectively rehabilitated and reintegrated into society, if only they are given an authentic opportunity. I’ve witnessed some defendants break down crying, horrified by the mistakes they made. For them, having to live with the shame and remorse that comes with committing crimes, and causing trouble for their families and for society was a far greater sentence than whatever prison term a judge might hand down.
These poor defendants committed crimes, usually not because they were intrinsically evil, but because of a variety of other factors. These included, severe mental health problems, a history of addiction, crippling poverty, lack of guidance, and familial instability. These were not character flaws, but problems that society could have prevented.
Our justice system is inevitably intertwined with our society, and its issues are a symptom of the greater issues of society. Although such systemic problems can easily feel overwhelming at times, I like to think of a certain John F. Kennedy quote that’s quite fitting: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, not in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
I am beginning by working to educate people about our judicial system. Education is important because it is not enough to recognize that our judicial system has perilous flaws, but it is important to understand the system to understand how and why these problems came to be, so that we can fix them.