During visit from two Cowlitz County Superior Court judges Thursday, Mark Morris social studies students learned that criminal justice isn’t just about punishment.
Judges Gary Bashor and Marilyn Haan spent several class periods talking to students about restorative justice, a practice which emphasizes reform over punitive action. The judges oversee Cowlitz County’s drug courts for adults and juveniles, two local examples of restorative justice.
“Students talk about restorative justice in class, about how it’s changed over time and what it looks like today,” said Mark Morris principal Brooks Cooper. “Who better to tell students about that than the judges themselves?”
During his morning sessions, Bashor described the drug court program, which offers an alternative to jail for eligible offenders. Charges are dismissed for those that graduate from drug court. However, the 12-month program is “rigorous.” It includes drug and addiction treatment, random drug testing, frequent court appearances, several hours of community service and reconciliation with victims in cases where one exists.
The program’s ultimate goal is to reduce the offenders’ return to criminal action or jail by reforming their behavior — the heart of restorative justice, Bashor said. He told the students that several of his drug court participants continued to volunteer locally after graduation. Others started their own programs to help the county’s homeless population.
The judges’ presentations about drug court provided a concrete example that students could understand, said Charles Williams, Mark Morris civics teacher.
“Drugs, no matter who you are, have affected you in some way, shape or form. … We all know someone who knows someone who’s been affected by drugs,” Williams said. “For high school students to see there are second chances for people, that’s a good thing.”
Junior Andrew Wilson said that hearing from the judges directly made the lessons he’d been learning in class more tangible.
“It’s more interactive, and you can ask questions that they will know the answer to ... because they work in that field,” Wilson said.
The judges’ presentation wasn’t the first time students have been exposed to concrete examples of restorative justice, Williams said. Students might recognize that same “second chance” approach in their own hallways because educators today are less likely to expel students as a punishment, he said. Instead, they find other ways for students to atone for their actions and get counseling to prevent similar misbehavior.
Cooper, the principal, said “Even in our own discipline practices we try to use hope … rather than punitive action.”
Meeting and listening to the judges “removed the veil” from the “mysterious” world of criminal justice for students, Williams said. Even just interacting with the professionals “brings (the legal system) to a level to not being abstract,” he said.
Cooper said social studies classes should teach students how the civics works. But “to hear it from a judge is different than to hear it from their teacher,” he said.
“It provides them with another filter to process why our civic system functions the way it does,” Cooper said.
Jadyn Hemberg, a junior, said it was “really cool that as juniors in high school we get to connect with someone in our community to see how this works.” Before the presentation, she didn’t know the county had a program like drug court, she said.
Her classmate, Wilson, said he was still working through his personal stance on restorative justice practices like drug court. While he think it’s good to get people off drugs and out of a “life of crime,” he said there are some cases in which offenders should serve time in jail for their actions.
“As to the certain crimes and felonies, I’m not sure how I stand with how best to deal with it,” Wilson.
No matter where he finally lands on that answer, Wilson said it’s important for high school students to have conversations about what’s going on their communities.
“We need to know what’s going on in our community so we can be productive members of society,” Wilson said. “It helps with our social aspect … to know what to do and what not to do.”