Legal Education for Juveniles

By Chorak, Bebs | Corrections Today, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Legal Education for Juveniles


Chorak, Bebs, Corrections Today


Do you remember when you were a student? What was it about the classroom you liked? What did you dislike? Let's visit two classrooms in a juvenile facility to see what takes place. First, picture a traditional classroom where the students are sitting at desks and reading from textbooks. The students range in age from 13 to 17 and function at various educational levels. The textbooks are selected by grade level from their home schools. After they finish reading, the students are given worksheets to complete individually. At the end of the day, they may have a test on what they read or what was covered on the worksheets. There is little discussion, but the teacher moves around the class to encourage and help individuals complete their assignments.

Now, imagine yourself in the day room of the local juvenile justice detention center. Though the setting is informal, the students are attentive and actively involved in presenting arguments in a mock city council meeting. Students are playing the roles of parents, police, business leaders and other community members as they testify before the council about a proposed city curfew law. Students make persuasive and informed arguments representing various interests. After the groups finish testifying, the "city council" discusses the most important issues that arise from these arguments and decides whether or not to implement a curfew law. At this point, the teacher asks the visiting city attorney, who is providing procedural assistance, to comment on the process and lead a discussion on the issues that a curfew law raises for local communities. The students are engaged completely by the attorney, who discusses with them issues concerning community and youth safety, the constitutional rights of minors, and the need for all citizens to be involved in lawmaking.

Both of these situations probably involve students who either have failed or had very negative school experiences. These young people have made a career of not letting the teacher know what they know or don't know. Is one setting more threatening than the other? Is one more conducive to learning? In the second classroom, the teacher is using interactive methods that allow the students to work at their own levels. Interaction promotes thinking and develops interpersonal skills. The teacher has enhanced the interaction with relevant content and the involvement of a community expert. It is a friendly, positive environment in which all students can participate and learn. The first classroom, as we know, easily can become a prescription for boredom and unproductive educational time.

Law-related Education

Law-related education (LRE) is a program designed to teach non-lawyers about the law, the legal system and the basic principles and values underlying our constitutional democracy. LRE also shows promise for being able to reach students who have not been reached through traditional teaching. LRE demystifies the law and the community's systems by providing practical information about the legal system. LRE encourages youths to become effective, law-abiding citizens by promoting civic responsibility and community participation. Students learn substantive information about their rights and responsibilities, practice cooperative learning, experience positive interaction with adults and each other, and begin to appreciate rules. Perhaps this is why you can visit juvenile facilities across the country today and see enthusiastic students in interactive law-related education classes.

Law-related education's popularity with juvenile justice staff and students continues to grow. Staff like it because students respond to lessons with excitement. They also recognize that this information is useful to them and that students are practicing skills important to their success.

Jan Cowin, executive director of the Alabama Center for Law and Civic Education, reports that Department of Youth Services teachers attending LRE workshops say that LRE helps them better understand the complexities of the justice system. …

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