11-year-olds learn that children can be jailed Middle-schoolers given lesson in justice

October 22, 1995|By Charles R. Wolpoff | Charles R. Wolpoff,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

All eyes were on the 11-year-old judge as he prepared to pronounce sentence on David, a fictitious teen who had been found guilty of injuring another child.

"I sentence David to eight years in jail," said Loren TenEck, a sixth-grade student at Elkridge Landing Middle School.

Deputy State's Attorney Les Gross was pleased with the decision.

It showed that the students understood the point that he and other members of the Howard County state's attorney's office are making in county middle schools: The juvenile justice system is becoming tougher on young offenders.

"The goal is to let the kids know there are consequences to their actions," said William Tucker, chief of the office's juvenile division. "If they heard the justice system is a joke, well, it's not."

The state's attorney's office has targeted sixth-grade classes in county schools, Mr. Tucker said.

He said the program, which was launched Friday at Elkridge Landing and Harper's Choice Middle schools, may be completed by Christmas break.

Mr. Tucker, who watched some of the initial presentations, said the message appeared to get across. "The kids seemed a little surprised when they heard the consequences that can happen to them," he said.

Sixth-graders were targeted because fifth, seventh and eighth grades already participate in programs directed at discouraging behavioral problems, he said.

They also are "new kids on the block" in middle school and not yet set in their ways, he said.

The presentations include role-playing, in which children represent parents of an offender and victim, a doctor, a police officer, a state's attorney and a judge.

The skit is aimed at making youths think about the effects of a crime, said Laura Manning, sixth-grade teacher at Elkridge Landing. "It affects more people than just yourself and the other kid," she said. "Crime has a ripple effect."

During the presentation, students learn what happens when someone under age 18 commits a crime.

They are told an offender can get probation, be forced to pay restitution of up to $10,000 or face house arrest or detention in a juvenile jail.

The presenters also make clear that jail, even if it is juvenile detention, is not a pleasant place.

"Imagine people watching you 24 hours a day," Ms. Manning told her class.

Assistant State's Attorney Bernard Taylor, in his presentation, said "If you're treated as a juvenile, they can keep an eye on you or keep you in jail until you're 21. Spooky. It's spooky."

In addition, the sixth-graders are taught that committing a crime could affect them beyond the age of 21.

If the crime is serious enough, the record can be used in future criminal proceedings.

Several students seemed surprised by the sentences.

"I thought kids would just get community service," said Erin O'connor, 11, of Elkridge Landing. "I didn't know you could go to jail."

Some students said they felt safer knowing young offenders will not be treated leniently.

"I think it will stop the violence because they know they'll be punished," said Harper's Choice sixth-grader Toby David, 11. "A lot of kids may have thought they could get away with it."

Toby said that at times he has felt scared walking in certain places. "Now, I feel a little more comfortable because, if something happens, they'll get punished."

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