Lesson plan: Program helps students gain grasp of 'Justice 101'

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

During his first run for elective office in 2012, Judge Derek Meinecke campaigned on a platform that promised innovation and accountability.

Those promises — over the past seven years — have been fulfilled in a distinct way through a program that is rooted in helping students gain an appreciation for and an understanding of the justice system.

The aptly titled “Justice 101” program is among a series of initiatives that Meinecke has rolled out since joining the 44th District Court, which encompasses the cities of Royal Oak and Berkley.

In terms of innovation, it dovetails neatly with an “Operation Drive” program that he launched, helping motorists restore licenses that have been suspended.

“I’m receptive to trying pilot programs that have the potential to make a difference in people’s lives, which is why I wanted to expand the reach of our Sobriety Court,” said Meinecke. “The opportunity to ‘do good’ is far greater if we are open to new ideas and view change in positive terms. We cannot afford to grow stale in respect to our thinking and our way of administering justice.”

Now in its seventh year, the Justice 101 initiative annually “touches the lives” of more than 600 fifth grade students in the public and parochial schools of Royal Oak and Berkley.

“Literally thousands of students have participated in the program, learning about the court system and gaining an awareness of how it impacts their lives,” said Meinecke.

On Tuesdays throughout the school year, Meinecke spends his lunch hour visiting elementary school classes to speak with the children about the different levels and functions of the judiciary, to explain legal terminology, to alert them to the dangers of surrendering to peer pressure and to prepare them for their visit to the courthouse the next day. 

On Wednesday mornings, students then are given a tour of the courthouse and the judge’s chambers before observing routine court proceedings.

At the conclusion of the court session, the judge “discusses with them what they observed and why it is important to them.” To round out their visit, students then head over to the Royal Oak Police Department headquarters for a tour and discussion.

“For the vast majority of those students, we offer them their first exposure to the court system,” Meinecke said. “We illustrate the many reasons why they want to avoid being in court, while also showing them the many career opportunities they could pursue as a lawyer, judge, bailiff, probation officer, and court reporter.”

In a 2017 column for the “Connections Newsletter” for the Michigan Trial Courts, Meinecke further explained his reasons for launching the Justice 101 program.

“Prior to taking the bench, I spent over a decade as a prosecutor, and both observed and participated in many court visit programs utilized by local district courts,” Meinecke wrote. “Although there were many aspects of these court visit programs that I admired, none provided the comprehensive approach that I believed was necessary to make a long-lasting impact on the student participants.

Meinecke said he felt it was necessary “to provide the students with some context, some greater understanding of what they were observing in court. The only way to accomplish that would be to meet with the students in advance.”

“In addition, I did not want to pick certain schools and classrooms while leaving other groups behind.  Another factor to consider was the type of docket that students should be observing. Finally, I had to find the appropriate grade — a group youth enough to be ‘wowed’ by a trip to a courthouse, yet old enough to comprehend the weighty topics that would be discussed.” Following some research, Meinecke decided that the program should be designed to appeal to fifth grade students as they approach their middle school years.

“The challenges related to drugs, alcohol, and other criminal behavior were starting as early as junior high, so I decided to make sure that no student set foot into the Royal Oak Middle School without a clear understanding of the consequences of poor choices,” he said.

“It then became clear that the best day of the week for the students to come observe would be Wednesday mornings,” Meinecke indicated. “Every Wednesday, we have a full probation docket, with sentencings, probation reviews, and probation violations. The students would then see misdemeanor cases and not have to deal with the heavier felony cases that are part of our Friday state law docket.”

Meinecke has helped brand the program with its own logo and YouTube channel to keep it in the mind’s eye of students, teachers, and parents.

“We still had 10 classes to go when COVID hit in March and the schools were shut down,” said Meinecke. “Hopefully we will be able to resume the program in some form this fall, which will coincide with our first Justice 101 graduates entering their senior year of high school.”

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