Harris County Street Law Mock Trial Competition

The best time of the Street Law Course is the mock trial competition, typically held at the end of the academic year. During this time the students compete to win as the best mock trial team of the year. The teams the students are in are based on the location they are taking the street law course at, which can vary from community programs to their actual high school. All the students competing are high-school aged.

During the academic year, the students in street law are being taught by 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th year (part-time) law students that attend the University of Houston Law Center. Typically, the students have the street law course two or more times a week. Many of the students in the street law course can take it for high school credit. Throughout the first semester of street law, as street law is a year-long academic course, the students are learning foundational understandings of civil and criminal law. The mock trial problem that the students get is going to be either civil or criminal, but it is unknown until closer to or during the second semester

The curriculum the instructors are teaching the students helps understand which students will be better for which roles during the mock trial competition. For example, if there is a speaking activity that the students need to do. The ones that like to lead the group will more than likely be the lead attorney for the mock trial competition. Another example, if there is an activity that involved bringing out one’s personability and one of the students does that exceptionally well. Then that student will more than likely be considered to hold a witness role, as witnesses need to have unique personalities.

Once the mock trial packet is received, the excitement begins. The next step is to read the entire mock trial packet to get an understanding of the laws being used, facts, jury verdicts, and evidence. During this time students are starting to use their critical thinking skills to analyze how the rules of the law might apply to the facts. All these skills are typically derived from the knowledge the students have gained over the year in the street law course. There are usually two to three witnesses for each side of the case that gave a sworn deposition in the packet. The students understand these witnesses and what their motives, credibility, and intent are in the case. Each one of the witnesses is played by one of the students in the mock trial so it is important to fully understand what the role of the witness is in the case. Additionally, in the case packet are the laws that will be applied in the case, which the students break down and use persuasively towards the facts given for their respective party in the case. The students are also given the jury form to help understand what it is the jury will be measuring to make their final verdict based on how well the case and chief, opening, and closings were presented. Being thorough and effective when presenting the case is of the utmost importance for the students to win.

Next are the attorneys. There can be two or more attorneys for each side. The students must prepare an opening statement, direct and cross-examinations for all witnesses, and a closing argument. Typically, each one of these sections is done by two or more student attorneys. The student attorneys also get a chance to learn courtroom evidentiary proceedings. This allows the student attorneys to have an opportunity to keep out certain types of evidence that might hurt their case. Once at trial, the students dress professionally and put on their case versus the other respective street law locations in Harris County. This is when the countless hours spent prepping for the mock trial, practicing with all witnesses, preparing opening and closings are put on a show. In the mock trial tournament, there are brackets, kind of like March Madness, except it is not single elimination. The brackets are random, and teams are scored by real attorneys and judges who practice in the field. The scores the students receive throughout the first two to three rounds determine which teams will go to the semifinals. It is as simple as the four teams with the highest scored through those first two to three rounds move on. Usually, there are about 12-16 teams in the tournament, so it can get quite competitive. Once the semifinals are concluded the two teams who won that round versus the team, they went against will move on to the finals. The two teams in finals compete for first place and whoever wins is the Harris County Street Law Champion of that academic year. There are awards and trophies/medals awarded for the team that won and individual awards as well for top performances.

The tournament pre-Covid was always held in person and took up an entire day. Post-Covid it has been virtual taking place over two days. Hopefully, we get the opportunity to do it in person back, as it brings everyone together. This is a great time for everyone involved and I believe having this tournament for the street law students gives them a real opportunity to see the value of understanding the law and possibly wanting to have a career in the legal field.

Juvenile Justice Systems around the Globe: Alternative Ways to Address Youth (“AWAY”) Project

The “AWAY” Project analyzed changes implemented in the various juvenile justice systems of several European countries over the course of two years- from 2017 to 2018. [1] The countries included in the analysis were Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Belgium. The project’s main research questions were: (1) What are the existing measures and processes for diversion that exist in the countries, and in what percentage of cases of children in conflict with the law are they used?; (2) What factors (existing needs, gaps and pitfalls) hinder better and more frequent use of diversion and child-friendly justice practices?; and (3) what needs to be improved in the juvenile justice system to promote diversion and restorative justice using a child friendly approach? [2] Over the course of several blogs, I will discuss the findings of the “AWAY” project as it relates to the specific countries, and what the United States can take away and implement in our own system.

Juvenile Justice System: Belgium

Throughout Europe, national and European legislation (along with the ratification of the CRC) establishes that individuals under the age of 18 are considered children with limited legal capacity. [3] In Belgium, the juvenile justice system is called “protective justice” and the term “act deemed to constitute an offence (ADCO)” is used in place of “crime” or “offence” to enforce the view that children are not fully capable of understanding the nature of their criminal actions. [4] If a child is suspected of an “ADCO,” they will first meet with the police and be informed of their rights. [5]A prosecutor then has the choice to refer the case to the juvenile court or use a diversion method. These methods include taking no action, issuing a warning, or suggesting mediation with the victim. If a case is referred to a juvenile court, the judge has the option to issue several measures aimed at allowing the child to remain with their family or legal guardian. These options include issuing a warning, an order to take on a written project, outpatient therapy, community or educational services, restorative options, or for the child to go under supervision. In rare circumstances, the judge may place the child with a temporary guardian, or in an institution for psychiatric, therapeutic, or education services. [6]

Belgium’s system focuses on restorative justice and aims to repair the damage done by an ADCO and restore the bond between the perpetrator and the victim. If a victim has been identified the prosecutor must consider mediation, and if they choose against it, they must issue a written document stating that they have considered it but concluded that other measures are needed. All parties must agree on the mediation. The goal of the system is to keep the child with their families or legal guardian and always consider a restorative measure first. [7]

In comparison to the U.S. juvenile justice system, the “protective justice” system of Belgium gives police, prosecutors, judges, victims, children, and their parents/guardians far more options. Institutionalization is viewed as a last resort and there are multiple safeguards put in place to ensure it stays that way. Additionally, I think the language that the Belgium system uses is something the U.S. system could borrow from. It enforces the fact that that children’s brains are still developing, and as a result they are not able to fully comprehend the criminality of their actions in the way most fully developed adult brains could.

[1] Éva Kerpel et al., Alternative Ways to Address Youth (AWAY) Project Research Synthesis Report 5 (Viktória Sebhelyi et al. eds., 2018).

[2] Id. at 6.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 22.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 23.

The Runaways: Foster Youth & Sex Trafficking in Houston, TX

I can say without controversy, and as a die-hard Houstonian, that the streets of Houston are not an ideal place for unaccompanied minors— especially those without adequate resources and support—to have healthy, formative experiences. And yet, thousands of children find themselves in this situation every year. The Texas Department of Family & Protective Services reported that 1,707 youth placed under their conservatorship ran away from their placements in 2017. In its annual Foster Youth Runaway Report, DFPS noted that being a runaway or homeless youth constitutes the number one risk factor for exploitation. A total of 35 young people reported having been sex trafficked while on runaway status in 2017, per that same report.

Establishing a causal link between homelessness and exploitation in young people might seem straightforward or even obvious given the lack of resources, familial support, stability, and guidance inherent to being unhoused. But unpacking the concrete reality of the situation reveals even more distressing truths. According to several studies cited in a 2013 report by the HHS Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), anywhere from fifty to more than ninety percent of children who were victims of sex trafficking had been previously involved with child welfare services. What do we make of this unsettling correlation? How are we failing foster kids by allowing them to fall victim to trafficking?

Last week, I attended a Zoom panel hosted by the Juvenile & Children’s Advocacy Project (JCAP), United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT), and Unbound Houston, an organization centered on human trafficking awareness and prevention. One of the panelists, NH, spoke on the harrowing experience of foster care and surviving human trafficking. She pointed out that, when dealing with trafficking allegations, DFPS focuses its investigations on the child’s household; that is, the Department only has the legal authority to investigate the people directly responsible for the child’s welfare, like a parent or legal guardian. Traffickers don’t typically target members of their own households, let alone their own children. But the 2013 ACYF report noted that sex traffickers often recruit foster kids from group homes. And in NH’s case, the Department actually approved placement for her—a pregnant minor at the time—in a home with the man who would be her trafficker. Such a complete oversight shocks the conscience and makes one wonder: What, if anything, is being done to prevent this from happening?

In 2017, DFPS established the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Division (HTCE); two years later, DFPS implemented a screening tool, called the Commercial Sexual Exploitation – Identification Tool (CSE-IT), developed to help caseworkers identify potential victims of trafficking among the kids who come under the care of the Department. The State is taking steps toward ameliorating the issue of child sex trafficking, largely due to widespread criticism—and legal action—regarding its previous methods. However, in 2019, DFPS reported that 2,122 kids under their conservatorship had run away at some point in the year and that 46 of those reported being sex trafficked—an increase in both the number of runaways and in trafficking instances compared to 2017. (Although this could be due to improved tracking/reporting systems). Also, data shows that sex trafficking cases (both of adults and youth) in Harris County actually doubled in 2019, with no indication of these numbers decreasing. Naturally, the 2020 pandemic has had some impact on these statistics, and perhaps it is still too early to determine whether the efforts of HTCE and DFPS’s improved screening techniques will help kids in situations like NH’s. But there is still the issue of the runaways.

From what I’ve learned working with trafficked youth over the past few months, part of the problem lies in the fact that many kids prefer the streets to foster placements, which often impose strict rules and services the kids just aren’t interested in. The teens (particularly the older ones) may struggle to connect with their caregivers and advocates, and would rather be among their chosen folk in a looser, more familiar environment. Overcoming the effects of grooming is also a major challenge; as I’ve unfortunately witnessed, recovered runaways are prone to return to their traffickers at the earliest chance they get. This is where HTCE and organizations like UAHT, Unbound Houston, and Harris County Youth Collective (HCYC) get it really right: by focusing on community awareness and offering resources for kids involved with the system outside the system. 

Part of HTCE’s efforts—like those of other worthy local organizations—have involved providing outreach and education on human trafficking at the community level. Over the past year, these groups have trained thousands of people on how to recognize and prevent trafficking in their communities, established safe spaces for victims and families, and built databases for connecting individuals with the resources they need most (See: the 2020 Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force Report). HCYC’s Youth & Community Specialists offer mentorship and counseling to young people from a lived-experience perspective; they understand what these kids are going through (and what their particular needs may be) because they’ve actually been through it themselves. This community-based work is vital to harm prevention and improving outcomes for kids in foster care, especially those most susceptible to exploitation. 

It’s about empowering youth to commit to their own futures and creating environments conducive to staying on that well-lit path. That means giving these kids resources they’ll actually want to partake of, equipping locals with the necessary tools, and creating a community prepared to fight to keep their young people safe. In this way, we can work toward making the mean streets of Houston a better place to be.