In a large courtroom at Central Islip, U.S. Circuit Judge Joseph Bianco asked the defendant if he wanted to speak for himself.
“I’m very embarrassed,” said the defendant, who pleaded guilty to violating the terms of his supervised release by missing scheduled drug testing. He talked, with emotion, about how his family was hurting from his drug use. He promised never to be in the same situation again.
Bianco eventually sentenced him to two months of incarceration followed by a year of supervised release, short of the six months prosecutors wanted.
“I hope this helps you refocus on what your priorities are,” Bianco said.
It was a typical Thursday at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York — except for the presence of about 80 high school students from across Long Island.
For the fourth year, students who will be sophomores this year from participated in the EDNY Justice Institute, a five-day program that is part of the Second Circuit’s civics education initiative Justice for All: Courts and the Community.“
It makes [the court system] look more humane,” said Lindsey Black, 14, from Massapequa High School, on the sentencing she saw. “You can actually see someone’s life hanging in the balance.”
Besides the sentencing, students witnessed a naturalization ceremony, heard from attorneys and law enforcement and will compete in a mock trial Friday under the mentorship of lawyers and law students, all designed to introduce them to the criminal justice system.
“My belief is that the more people who encounter the court system, the more demystifying it becomes,” said Bianco, who leads the program.
Indeed, many students said they had complete misconceptions of what happens in the legal system.
“I thought it was just paperwork and an office with a lot of people moving around,” said Emily Flores, 15, of Brentwood High School. Others brought up the television show “Law and Order.”
But after seeing and listening firsthand what attorneys did, Flores said she realized how diverse and interesting the work of a lawyer can be. She learned also how important their work was, informing people of their rights, something she wants to bring back to Brentwood.
“I was stuck on deciding between two things: become a registered nurse or do something on the criminal justice side,” she said. “This program shifted me more to the criminal justice side.”
Throughout the week, the advice and lessons students pick up are in preparation for the mock trial competition, the culmination of the program. Students act in the roles of witnesses and lawyers. Mentors help them craft opening and closing statements, know which arguments to pursue and understand court protocol.
Attorneys will do most of the competition’s judging, with three federal judges presiding over the championship round.
It can be very intense: many had never even stepped in a courthouse or experienced any legal work before Monday.
“Before this, I don’t think I would’ve ever imagined doing this,” said Sarah Popeck, 15, of Massapequa. “But with the help of mentors, the program, the attorneys … I feel like I can do it.”
The idea of becoming a lawyer, she added, now seems more tangible.
Mentors said it was a learning experience for them as well.
“I’m impressed with their level of engagement and the level of questions they ask,” said Raymond Fragola Jr., a student at the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center. “One of them had asked, ‘What can the legal system do to reduce the number of false confessions?’ and I’m like, they’re 14!”
It’s a fresh perspective they bring to the table, mentors said.
“You know, as an adult, your dreams get stale,” said Hun Lee, student at Cornell Law School. “When I see these kids, it makes me reflect back on the dreams I had when I was younger.”