YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Teachers Get a Lesson in Criminal Justice

They visit court session and take behind-scenes tour to better teach government classes.

October 16, 2002|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

The high school teachers watched curiously Tuesday as a sheriff's deputy patted down a criminal defendant in the basement lockup of the Van Nuys Courthouse.

Moments earlier, they saw two others being arraigned and another pleading no contest to an attempted robbery charge.

As part of a new educational program for government teachers sponsored by the Los Angeles County Superior Court, more than 100 educators will attend the daylong sessions this month at six courthouses countywide.

"I've never seen anything like this, except on TV," said Jerri Chutuk, a teacher at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Reseda, after watching Judge Jessica Perrin Silvers conduct a preliminary hearing.

Chutuk said she would use the experience to interest her students in learning more about the courts. "When you are studying the Constitution, it seems so foreign," she said. "You want to relate it to real life. This is the Constitution at work."

Judge Richard Fruin began preparing a curriculum and materials for the program two years ago. It is an extension of a civics course he began at Compton High School in 1996, soon after being named to the bench.

Fruin decided the best way to reach the county's 100,000 high school seniors was for the judiciary to create "an authentic [court] experience" for Los Angeles County's 900 government teachers. To get their diplomas, all California high school seniors must complete a government course, which includes a trial court component.

"No one has ever taken the time to show [teachers] and explain to them what happens in the courts," said Fruin, chairman of the Court/Community Outreach Program.

"They are here to really experience the courthouse. They are not here for a seminar.... We want them to go into the holding tanks. We want them to see, hear and smell it. We want them to see people in shackles and see a drug court."

Courthouses are "underutilized assets" in the community, Fruin said, and should be used to educate the public about the judiciary and create better-informed citizens, voters, jurors and taxpayers.

The program is different at every location, depending on the types of cases being tried in each courthouse. Participants are encouraged to ask lots of questions.

From the bench, Judge Darlene Schempp introduced the various attorneys and court staff and explained their roles in the pending proceedings.

Earlier, the teachers peppered Bill Weiss, who heads the public defender's office, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Rizzo with questions about the criminal justice system: How poor do you have to be to get a public defender? (It's based on a person's income and number of dependents, among other factors.) What does it mean if you are sentenced to 25 years to life? (You must serve at least 25 years.) Can you use a credit card to post bail? (Yes.)

In conjunction with the L.A. County Office of Education, the court also has created a free CD-ROM for educators that features three typical courtroom scenarios with real judges and court staff.

In one, Judge Lance Ito presides over a hearing in which a defendant facing deportation tries to withdraw his guilty plea.

Max Krajcik has taught for 13 years at Central Juvenile Hall, where his students are awaiting sentencing in the criminal justice system.

Although he is more familiar with the justice system than most teachers, he said he now has much better information for his students, who often ask about plea bargains and share with him their often-harsh thoughts on their public defenders.

Krajcik said he has a new view of the system.

"I'm seeing that the public defenders are actually a lot more caring than the students believe," he said. "I was surprised by the amount of compassion I felt from the prosecutor, the public defender and the judge alike."

Eric Flanders of Independence High, a continuation school, said he was amazed by the circus-like atmosphere in the courtroom.

The judges are juggling cases amid what looks like chaos to a courthouse outsider, he said, wowed by their productivity.

"They are," he said, "as good as teachers."

Los Angeles Times Articles