By Jeanne Segil, J.D. ’14
When I walked through security at the courthouse for our last mock trial as part of the Trial Advocacy Workshop, the security guard looked at my trial partner and I (we are often confused for being younger than our actual ages) and he said, “someday you will be real lawyers.” I smiled to myself as I doubted that he knew that one week later we would be at arraignments in district court in Massachusetts, representing our very own clients as student attorneys.
My experience at CJI has been a rollercoaster of emotions—it can be heartbreaking to navigate our way through a broken criminal justice system with our clients depending on us to fight for just outcomes. I have one client who was seventeen at the time he allegedly committed an offense and the Massachusetts legislature unanimously passed a bill to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include seventeen-year-olds. His alleged offense occurred shortly before the passage of the bill, thus we worked tirelessly to argue that the bill should be applied retroactively. Another case raising the same issue was ultimately heard in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), where the SJC held that it was not retroactive.
While I understood that the Commonwealth had valid legal arguments regarding retroactivity, I couldn’t help but wonder, why make those arguments? Why oppose having seventeen-year-olds in the more lenient juvenile justice system when the Massachusetts legislature unanimously believes they belong there? We confronted this same unquestioning stance every day in court. We heard our clients’ stories, we understood their situations, and we became disillusioned when nobody else seemed to take that time. During those moments, I remembered words by Bryan Stevenson, the Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who said we need “more hope, more forgiveness, more justice.” And that is one of my takeaways from this year at CJI—while the problems within the criminal justice system are complex and overwhelming, some of the solutions are beautiful and simple. Our clients are capable of achieving great things in their lives; we need to start viewing people in a way that recognizes their humanity and enables them to reach their potential.
These views brought me from trial court all the way to an oral argument with a single Justice at the SJC, the first time a CJI student has argued at the SJC in 15 years. The issue being heard regarded the authority of the trial court to allow pretrial diversion for a first-time OUI offense. Pretrial diversion would allow my client to complete an educational program and not have a criminal record. My client graduated high school with honors while working to support his family, received an academic scholarship to attend college, and has made the Dean’s List at college. He is a unique and wonderful young man who deserves a second chance. I am still awaiting the results of this case but it was a truly remarkable experience to be heard in that courtroom and have an SJC Justice devote time to learning about my client, his amazing achievements in the past, and his potential to make a positive difference in this world. That experience reminded me to be hopeful that our system can change for the better.
And amidst these ups and downs, I feel so grateful for the constant support within CJI. We have incredible supervising attorneys who are always there for us and ensure that we never feel alone. And we have each other, my colleagues at CJI who will drop whatever they are doing to deliver a subpoena, go on an investigation, and do whatever it takes to help another CJI student. We share in each other’s victories and comfort one another in hard times. It is through getting to know my CJI colleagues, our supervising attorneys and staff, and our tremendous and resilient clients, that I have faith that we can slowly move mountains and make changes in our criminal justice system.