How to Street Law

KIPP Northeast students at 5th Circuit Court of Appeals hearing at UH Law Center.

An opportunity to bring the knowledge and understanding awaits law students who would like to teach high-school aged children about the law. This opportunity is not a traditional law school course and allows for creativity from the street law students and the instructor. As an instructor you are paired with a local high school or juvenile facility within your county (at least for UH Law Center). You are not paired alone, there will be a teacher or classroom monitor you are paired with as well to aid with the teaching process.

The first time I worked for street law was at KIPP Northeast in fall 2019. At this institution I started with teaching High School students. The first day I might have been a little nervous due to being in law school and had the responsibility of teaching high school students about the law. I was in my 2nd year of law as a part-time student and knew just enough to supposedly make me “a little dangerous.” On that day I decided to establish rules with the classroom, but I thought we would bring in an introduction to how a democracy ideally works. This was a good moment for the students to participate in a voting process. The outcomes were decently accepted, and I figured the class as whole will work well together that year and that they did. At the end of that first day, I asked the students what they would like to learn and get out of the class, most of the students replied with “we want to learn loopholes.” While that made me smile, I knew this was going to be a great group of students. Throughout that first semester we touched on many topics, such as criminal law, family law, contracts, constitutional law, and many other legal topics that were current events.

The next semester, spring 2020, was the fun part as it was time to prepare for a mock trial competition. During the mock trial competition all the high schools and juvenile facilities that have street law instructors for UHLC have our students compete against one another. The mock trial itself can either be a civil or a criminal case and the students are assigned roles from the mock trial packet. Usually there is three to five lawyer roles for each side of the case and two to three witnesses for each side of the case as well. As a law student who never participated in a mock trial at that time, teaching this aspect was something new to me. Yet, I took on this responsibility and did the best to represent the school and the students as they showed plenty of talent. Getting the students to write and prepare for the mock trial was a challenge at first. The rigor and skill it took to read through the mock trial packet was bumpy at first. Once the students were able to understand what the case is about then the part of assigning students to roles was next. After assigning the student roles the class learned and drafted opening statements, directs, cross’s, and closing arguments and it was not as easy as it sounds. Yet, with plenty of support and visual aids the students were able to script out their entire mock trial and now they were just getting ready to perform. When the mock trial competition was two weeks away, I took the students to UHLC to view a hearing held by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. This extremely motivated the students to want to do the mock trial as they saw how it would be when their opportunity arises to advocate for their mock case. A week before the mock trial rounds were going to start the students were on spring break and that is when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country and the mock trial competition was canceled.

I did get another opportunity to teach that upcoming summer 2020 at a juvenile facility in Harris County. During this session I got to have a co-instructor who provided sound information to the students and gave an exciting aspect to the course. This time was quite fun and unique, during that summer the class was 100% virtual. Coming up with lesson plans and connecting with the students was a challenge that is easily overcome by practicing different strategies and figuring out what worked best. A huge benefit of doing the program that summer was every class period afterwards I would meet with the other fellow street law instructors who were teaching at the facility as well. We all discussed what has worked well for the virtual classroom setting and some things that can be done better. Ultimately the students were really engaged with visual aids, videos, and having discussions about the substance of law that was taught and how it may be applied to their lives. The students were able to display true advocacy for certain laws they like or believe should change. The experience gave me an opportunity to carry over everything I learned from the previous semester into the summer and I truly enjoyed the time I spent with the students.

The upcoming fall semester 2020 I got another opportunity to teach at a juvenile facility, but at a different location. The students in this facility came and went often and I never had the same group of students for longer than a month. This did not phase me as it gave me an opportunity to teach the new students the importance of learning the law at their age and the importance of advocating for oneself. This class was still 100% virtual, but there were a couple occasions where I was allowed to go in person. The students appreciated my presence in person and was able to spend some time asking about a higher education and law school. This was also the first semester that I taught with another street law instructor. The co-instructor for the class brought a different perspective than I did, and the students enjoyed both sides. We were able to partner together on the lesson plans and how we wanted to carry out the mock trial competition at the end of the semester. Due to having an always changing group of students, there were plenty of challenges. Yet, there were some rock star students who were able to carry on a bigger task load when it came to the competition date. The students did exceptionally well during the mock trial competition and showed great signs of being a future advocate for themselves.

The following semester, spring 2021, I got an opportunity to teach at a different juvenile facility than the first two. I was extremely excited for this opportunity as I have heard great things about the students here and their ability to grasp legal understanding of a mock trial at a high rate. Once I started with the students, I saw what I had been told right away. The students were extremely brilliant and had an inquisitive mindset towards street law. I think the difference between this school and the other is with the first two institutions I had to introduce the students to what is street law versus this time around the students already had a sound understanding of what the program was. The students were so prepared for the class I had to consistently come up with a different ways of teaching every class. The class was still 100% virtual and I did not get an opportunity to meet the students in person. Yet, the students enjoyed virtual games like crossword puzzles, jeopardy, and trivia games. At this point I was comfortable creating games using the law. I also became comfortable having students lead discussions and having other involved to either support or oppose the information that was being discussed by the student. The students enjoyed visual aids for learning such as videos and music just like the prior classes as well. Being a street law instructor was now becoming a second nature and I truly enjoy it. The students in this program also got the opportunity to participate in a mock trial competition at the end of their semester. The students performed exceptionally well in preparing for the mock trial. On the day of the mock trial the students had an incredible performance and showed a sound understanding of the law. This time around the competition was held virtually on zoom. The way the students performed was extremely well and I am proud of their performance.

I am glad to have had this opportunity at UHLC and look forward to how the street law program will grow in the future. I am glad to have met Professor Marrus, who introduced me to street law. Additionally, every single person that acquainted me in my role as a street law instructor, I thank you!

John Ligon – From Being Down To Persevering, When Others Don’t See It But You

In the wake of justice, John Ligon had finally received what he believed would happen – a release from prison without parole. Why would someone wait 68 years for this?

John Ligon was the son of sharecroppers from the state of Alabama. John dropped out of school before he was middle school aged. John’s family relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when he was 13 years old. At this time his family wanted him to go back to school. John was new in town and lacked the education most teenagers had at the time. In 1953, when John turned 15-years old, he was charged in Pennsylvania for being part of a group of teenagers involved in a spree of robbery and assaults that led to the murder of two individuals. John admits to being part of this teenage group that did those crimes. Yet, John denies ever killing anyone. John states that the murders had the front pages of newspapers claiming the group he was in had been called “The Head Hunters,” but he denies that group ever being a gang. These convictions led to a life in prison without the possibility of parole.

During this period the United States was a world leader for imprisoning juveniles without the ability to get parole. Until 2016, the state of Pennsylvania had the most juveniles serving life sentences. Around sixty percent of this prison population had been from Philadelphia, one of the nation’s poorest big cities, and a high percentage of them were Black. The cost to lock up John for so long was $3 million, excluding the cancer treatments he received. John is currently in the remission phase. He is an example of the high expense to incarcerate elderly prisoners due to their demand for health needs; despite them likely being less of a danger to society.

Interestingly enough, John mentions he is a stubborn person, stating “I was born that way.” Yet, he wanted the freedom to be able to go anywhere he wanted without having to check in with no one. This is important as John did get an opportunity to get released on parole after the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life terms for minors who were convicted of murder in 2012. Yet, John wanted a life without a parole officer, stating “with parole you got to see people every so often. You can’t leave the city without permission from parole. That’s part of freedom for me.” Even at that time, many prisoners wanted John to not think that way and told him that this is his opportunity to be out in the free world. Even a former juvenile lifer, John Pace, who is now a reentry coordinator for the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project counseled John and told him, “if you want to fight, fight when you get out.” John knew how he wanted to live life once he was able to get freedom— that was not it.

John had a dedicated lawyer to help him with the ability to live that life of freedom he desired. Bradley Bridge, a public defender, was John’s lawyer of 15 years. He had a mission to release John on the terms John sought. This took gathering as much information about John’s background as possible, locating all school transcripts and prison records that spanned over the entire time John was incarcerated. Bridge argued that John’s sentencing was part of cruel and unusual punishment, specifically stating that “… if this went to trial today, Joe Ligon would be found guilty of robbery, aggravated assault, or attempted murder, and he would have gotten a sentence of five to 10 years.” During this time, in 2016, John was then eligible for parole but opted out to spend four more years in prison. Even at that time, the judge explained to John “I do not want you to die in prison.” Yet, John wanted to do whatever it took to be free from any type of sentencing tied to the convictions he received as a 15-year-old.

After the four additional years spent in prison, John eventually got what he wanted and was released from prison. John had 10 plus city organizations in Philadelphia assisting him in getting John a foster-care-like accommodation with a family who opened their home to him after his release. Additionally, John was able to get the Philadelphia Office of Homeless Services to work on compensating John’s living expenses he would be able to receive that first year. Moreover, John was given a benefits specialist to work on John being able to receive Social Security after that year ends. The support John received was tremendous and assisted in his ability to live the life he knew he would be able to after his release.

The reason John waited those extra years to be released from prison was to show that the fight to live a life you wanted is attainable. The daring obstacles John mostly put on himself was his choice. He knew he could get released with parole earlier than his actual release date, but that is not what he wanted. Even when public opinion and others close to John told him a viable way out if it was not what he wished for he kept surviving and advocating for what he believed in. John even mentions “we’ve been to hell and back,” so why not get what you wish for. John is a true story of perseverance.

No Second Chances Or No Chance At All

No Second Chances or No Chances At All

On Monday, March 22, Indiana legislatures conducted the second reading of a bill that would restore prosecutorial discretion to try 16 and 17-year-old children in adult court for their second gun crime.[1]  Representative Wendy McNamara authored the bill in response to an Indiana Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to hear cases in which teenagers are charged with dangerous possession of a firearm.[2]  According to representative McNamara, the bill merely reinforces the status quo by “putting back into law what has currently been in practice for as long as I can know. . . .”  At first blush, it might seem hard to argue with Committee Chairman Senator Mike Young’s assertion that “kids with guns do dangerous things, and we gave them one break, and on the second one we’re going to send them to adult court.”  Such an assertion seems to follow a common belief held by many that kids who do adult crimes should do adult time.

The problem is this is not an adult crime.  In fact, Indiana’s dangerous possession statute “is clear and applies only to children; an adult cannot commit dangerous possession of a firearm.”[3] If IN HB1256 passes, it would be just another example of criminalizing youth, prioritizing the perception of public safety over education and development.  What’s more, another piece of legislation, IN HB 1369, which passed the House by 65-31 vote, would eliminate the license requirement to carry a handgun in Indiana despite the $5.3 million per year the license raises and fears the bill would make police officers and the general public less safe.[4]

So, what’s really going on here?  Does a dangerous possession statute like Indiana’s betray a presumption of dangerousness in youth?  Is the solution to remove kids from their dangerous homes and place them in prisons?  Will waiving a teen gun offender to adult court amount to a denial of services and individualized treatment by placing them on probation or community correction?  And why in the world would we subject a child to the adult criminal justice system for conduct that is not criminal behavior? As I ponder these questions, I can’t help but think this is just another example of the system working as it was designed to, an example of what Alec Karakatsanis would characterize as people in power making very important choices about what is and is not a crime for very particular racial and political purposes.[5]

In my view, it is absurd to deprive a person of their childhood because they made the same mistake twice – which in and of itself seems to indicate a lack of mature reasoning.  It is absurd to “discipline” teenagers in a way that does not teach them about the rights and responsibilities they will have as adults.  But this seems to be the criminal “justice” system working as it was designed.  When 83% of the young offenders being sent directly to adult court on firearms charges are children of color, it seems clear that proponents of the bill are indeed just trying to maintain the status quo of controlling poor people and people of color.  Because, while a “lawful citizen in the state of Indiana” should have the right to protect themselves without state interference, children – particularly children of color – are not afforded the same right.  Imagine, for instance, white, female, country singer, Miranda Lambert said that after receiving threats, she carries a weapon for self-protection.[6]  That is, no doubt, her right and many might celebrate her for doing so.  However, children who grow up in marginalized communities, which inevitably become designated as “high crime areas” to justify infringements on other constitutional rights such as the 4th Amendment, may start carrying a gun for protection.  Driven by the same trauma as a “lawful citizen,” these children are thrown in jail, labeled criminals, and deprived of hope for the future.

Although I have focused on Indiana, this is a nationwide problem.  For example, truancy laws across the country subject children to the “justice” system for conduct that would not be criminal if committed by an adult.  And while these laws may be enforced under the guise of public health and safety, in reality, it is just another way for the legal system to marginalize and subjugate children, preparing them to be disenfranchised and despondent adults.

[1] https://fox59.com/news/politics/indiana-senate-to-debate-bill-to-send-more-juveniles-to-adult-court/

[2] K.C.G. v. State, 156 N.E.3d 1281, 1282 (Ind. 2020)

[3] Id. at 1283.

[4] https://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2021/02/22/indiana-general-assembly-house-votes-eliminate-handgun-license/6765355002/

[5] https://www.texasobserver.org/alec-karakatsanis-usual-cruelty-criminal-justice-reform/

[6] https://tasteofcountry.com/miranda-lambert-admits-she-carries-a-weapon-for-protection/