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Street Law: Helping Young Offenders Go Straight

Street Law: Helping Young Offenders Go Straight

Many times I look at individuals who have been brought into my court and think how different their lives might have been if someone had educated them.

It appears more difficult to rear children today -- just ask a parent or teacher. We tend to label our children "good" or "bad" early on and offer little opportunity for those we brand as bad not only to overcome that stigma but to straighten out their lives. We throw them into an overburdened juvenile justice system and, in too many tragic instances, they are not helped.

Twenty-five years ago, as I sat in what was then called the juvenile branch of the D.C. Superior Court (now the family division), I was troubled by the large number of offenders who did not understand what was happening to them or the consequences of a life of crime. I had judged high school mock trials, so I was aware of an outstanding program sponsored by Georgetown University, in which law students taught practical law to D.C. public high school students.

I proposed an organization called Street Law to the D.C. Superior Court, and it was through it that the Save Our Streets program was born.

What we initiated was not a program that was readily embraced by young people. Those selected for the program were required to spend 12 Saturdays in the program and usually were released by the court into the custody of their parents.

Twenty years later, the Save Our Streets program combines Street Law education and conflict-resolution training. The education component is designed to build conceptual and practical understanding of the law and legal processes, with an emphasis on gun legislation and public policy questions concerning weapons. The conflict-resolution training builds skills in the areas of communication, problem-solving, decision-making and negotiation.

The D.C. Superior Court now is using the program as a pre-adjudication service for young people who have been arrested for weapons offenses, and the program is working. Among those who attended the classes, the court witnessed a 90 percent reduction in the rate of rearrest for carrying or using weapons. This program was highlighted last year by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

Many times I look at individuals who have been brought into my court and think how different their lives might have been if someone had educated them. What different paths might they have taken? It is hard to say. Street Law's Save Our Streets is creating a better destiny for a new generation.

Norma Holloway Johnson is chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District and a board member of Street Law.

Source: The Washington Post (Reproduced with permission)

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Save Our Streets

Topic: Underserved Youth

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