Justice for all? Debating the fairness of the juvenile justice system
A lesson plan to go with: “Is there justice for juveniles? Teens should pay for their crimes, but they deserve a second chance, too.” by Nicholas Williams, published Jan.-Feb. 2000 and “Judge calls new juvenile justice law ‘ridiculous’” by Ezeoma Obioha, published May-June 2000
Subjects: Language Arts, Social Studies
Suggested Time Allowance: 45 minutes-1 hour
Overview of Lesson Plan: In this lesson, students will discuss the treatment of young people by the criminal justice system and debate whether or not that treatment is fair.
• discuss the local and national juvenile justice system and its component parts—the police, the courts, the prison system.
• discuss the ramifications of California Propostion 21 (passed March 2000).
• debate the fairness of the treatment of juvenile offenders and young people in general by the justice system, including the consideration of age, race, gender, and class biases in the system.
• brainstorm ways to improve the treatment of youth in the justice system.
• copies of “Is there justice for juveniles?” and “Judge calls new juvenile justice law ‘ridiculous’” (one per student)
• classroom chalkboard
1. Warm-up: In journals or on separate pieces of paper, students will respond to the following prompt written on the board: Describe any experiences you have had with the justice system. This could be first-hand experience, or the experience of friends or family. The justice system includes police, lawyers, the courts, and the prison system. If you cannot think of any experiences, write about why you think that is.
2. As a class, read “Is there justice for juveniles?” Note that this was published in January 2000, before the proposition referred to in the article was passed in March. Then discuss the article, addressing these questions:
a. Had you heard about Proposition 21 before? If you had, what had you heard about it?
b. According to the article, what will Proposition 21 do to youth in the justice system?
c. Do you think that these changes are fair? Why or why not?
d. What were the experiences of the Street Poets in the article with the justice system?
e. What is the purpose of the criminal justice system? How do you know this? Do you think that the system does what it is supposed to do? Why or why not?
f. What do you think about the trying of juveniles as adults? Do you think that’s fair? Should youth be held to a different standard than adults? Why or why not?
g. How do you think teens are treated by the police?
h. Do you think teens who commit crimes are treated fairly by the justice system? Why or why not? Can young offenders be rehabilitated? If yes, how? If no, why not?
3. Divide the class into the following 8 groups: youth in the criminal justice system; youth without any problems with the law; police; corrections officers; politicians who are pro-Prop. 21; politicians who are anti-Prop. 21; prosecutors; defense attorneys. Give each small group markers and newsprint to brainstorm on. The scenario:
A town-hall meeting is to take place not long before the election in which the citizens of California will vote on Prop. 21. Each group will present its side on the issue of the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system to the community, after which the teacher, as moderator, will facilitate a dialogue between groups.
All students will remain in character for the dialogue, asking and answering questions according to their roles. First, in small groups, brainstorm your groups’ positions, using the newsprint.
Consider: Who are you? Who do you represent, and what are you interests? Why are you for or against the changes Prop. 21 would make in the juvenile justice system? Beyond this election, what are your concerns about this issue? Could there be more than one viewpoint in your group? If yes, how can you reconcile them? What do you want from the other groups? If you could ask the other groups anything, what would it be? What are your ideas for reforming the juvenile justice system? What are your positions on rehabilitation and prevention? After the small-group brainstorm, the teacher will then preside over the town-hall meeting.
4. Wrap-up/homework: Read “Judge calls new juvenile justice law ‘ridiculous.’” Taking into consideration this article, written after the passage of Prop. 21, as well as the article from class and the role-play debate, write an essay elaborating your own position on juvenile justice. Include how you felt to represent the point-of-view that you role-played in class: Do you support that viewpoint? Was it hard to adopt and represent that view in the debate? Can you see where each group’s viewpoint comes from? Feel free to draw on personal experience in your essay, but be sure to support your opinions with evidence. Finally, make recommendations for improving the juvenile justice system and decreasing the number of youth involved in it.
Further Questions for Discussion:
• What are ways to improve relations between teens and the police?
• Do the police and the courts treat people differently because of their race, class, age, or gender? If yes, how? How do you know this?
• What can be done to change these biases in the system?
• What are ways to keep more young people out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems? What kind of prevention is being done now? Is it working? Why or why not?
• Why do you think Prop. 21 passed? Who voted for it? Who voted against it? Why?
Students will be evaluated on their participation in discussion and debate and on their individual written work.
• Design and carry out a research project which compares the treatment of minors in Los Angeles and in California before Prop. 21 with their treatment since its passage. Comment on its effects, if any, and make suggestions for future policy changes.
• Research and compare other alternative rehabilitation programs like Dream Yard, described in “Is there justice for juveniles?” How do these programs differ in philosophy and in practice from the juvenile and adult prison systems? Evaluate their success, and make suggestions as to how appropriate alternatives to prison could be expanded.
• Research the positions of the presidential candidates and their parties on juvenile justice. Compare their stances, their records in the past, and their plans for the future.