By David Liebler.
If you research competitive mock trials on the Internet, you learn that they take place in numerous countries around the world. In the United States, students participate in them at the college, high school and even middle school levels. But finding anything about mock trials involving incarcerated youths is a search that begins and ends with San Bernardino County.
A collaborative program created by the County Public Defender’s Office, Probation Department and Juvenile Court, the “Gateway Mock Trial Competition” is having a strong, positive impact on the incarcerated youths who participate. County officials believe it is the only competition of its kind, but one that other counties could easily replicate.
The youths who participate are in the Juvenile Hall’s Gateway Program that consists of offenders who have a serious delinquency history and exhausted other placement programs. It’s an alternative to – and often one misstep away from – the state’s youth corrections facilities. And as with any juvenile who spends a significant amount of time in custody, access to certain educational opportunities is severely impacted.
Enter the Mock Trial Program, which allows incarcerated youth to compete against each other in a structured environment. But more importantly, they learn critical soft skills, — such as public speaking, teamwork, self-confidence and showing respect to others — that they can use once released. And they also build bonds with the volunteer public defenders who serve as coaches and mentors.
“It’s great to make this bond with them where we really feel like they trust us,” says Maggie Eisenberg, Deputy Public Defender.
Judge Erin Alexander sentenced a number of the youths into the Gateway Program. She tracks their progress closely and has attended the mock trials in which they participate. Judge Alexander has seen their growth.
“My hope is that they take it with them,” she says. “I wouldn’t bet against them.”
Probation Corrections Supervisor Joe Johnson is elated about the partnership with the Public Defender’s Office and the growth of the Mock Trial Program.
“It gives these kids an opportunity to express themselves in a positive way. It teaches them life lessons. It teaches them how to prepare themselves,” he says. “These kids, they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And this program shows them that there are people who care.”
Deputy Public Defender Ana Lee has been involved with the program since its inception four years ago.
“One of the goals is to empower these kids with their own skill set that they didn’t even know they had,” Lee says. “The progress they make in just a short period of time is amazing. … By the end of the program, every one of them delivered.”
Marcos Cardenas is serving time in Juvenile Hall. When he talks about his participation in the mock trial program, the excitement in his voice is evident. He points out that he learned a lot and may even consider pursuing law at some point.
“I wouldn’t do it for the money,” he says. “I would do it because if there’s someone out there who is in the same position I was, I would do anything to help them.”
If any other county is looking at developing a Mock Trial Program, Lee says the costs are minimal.
“It costs $50 to order the materials. You already have Probation staff, you already have kids committed for long periods of time, you already have a Public Defender’s Office. It’s really not costing anything but the materials,” Lee says. “I can’t see a county rejecting it because what do you have to lose?”
Judge Alexander concurs. “For the small investment it takes, the output is tremendous.”
San Bernardino County’s Gateway Mock Trial Program was honored as part of the 2016 CSAC Challenge Awards, which recognize the most innovative best practices developed by California Counties.