Facing up to US justice

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Some Edinburgh pupils are getting a fresh perspective on crime, punishment and rehabilitation after visits to courts in New York, writes Raymond Ross

Taking pupils to court and then to a detention centre in the Bronx, New York, is certainly one way to teach youngsters a lesson. This is how a group of S6 pupils from an independent Edinburgh school have spent their October week for the past two years, as part of their modern studies Advanced Higher course on Crime, Law and Society.

The students from George Watson's College visit the Red Hook Alternative Courts in Brooklyn, which dispense restorative justice, and the Horizon Juvenile Detention Centre in the Bronx, as well as sitting in on juvenile trials in the Lower Manhattan Courts.

The Red Hook Courts, which have been visited by Minister for Justice Cathy Jamieson and Home Secretary David Blunkett, bring together the relevant agencies - police, social work, community education and probation service - to offer people convicted of low-level, anti-social crimes the chance to work in and for their community, rather than simply serve a prison sentence. If a person re-offends during this period, they face six years in prison.

"Hug a thug, it ain't," says Michael Casey, a former Lothian and Borders police sergeant who now teaches modern studies at George Watson's.

"Part of the Advanced Higher focuses on questions like 'does prison meet its aims?' and 'are there any viable alternatives?'. The visit has a direct bearing on the course and, in particular, on the students' dissertations.

It gives them access to real primary source experiences, meeting with all the agencies involved and with offenders working in the community. It makes it real for them, gives them interview experience and boosts their confidence," he says.

A key day for the pupils is visiting the alternative courts - and meeting the charismatic judge, the Honourable Alex Calabrese - to contrast this with the solemn procedure of the extremely formal Scottish justice system (pupils also visit a Scottish court at least once).

"If, for example, you're doing your dissertation on youth crime, then it's fair to ask 'are the US more pro-active here? Is their attitude more can-do?'," says Mr Casey.

"Obviously, the alternative courts are not the norm for a country which has the highest imprisonment rate in the world, but last year, for example, we were able to make comparisons with the now defunct Airborne Project. What we are attempting is to give the students a balanced, if not complete picture."

For the pupils, it certainly seems to work. One boy, Richard Templeton, says he has found the whole experience invaluable.

"Two main things for me were seeing New York's Zero Tolerance of crime in practice and seeing restorative justice in action," he says.

"It was a privilege to watch a judge like the Honourable Alex Calabrese at work -inspirational, working for the city and the community. Not like a judge at all -well, not like a judge over here. He was very down to earth and obviously cared about the people who came before him.

"And Mr Boccio, the director of the Horizon Juvenile Detention Centre, was passionate and emotional about his work. He cared."

Zero Tolerance will figure in Richard's dissertation, Alcohol and Crime - the British Disease?. "In New York they tackle drunkenness at a lower level," he explains. "If you're even arrested drunk, they put you in touch with agencies and education programmes to help you see what is wrong with your behaviour."

His classmate Emma Baird is doing a dissertation on youth offenders which she believes will also benefit directly: "This was a hands-on experience which made the course real and got me used to the course terminology quickly. I'm glad we went early in the year, because we can refer back to it regularly in discussion and writing."

She's writing about the reasons for offending and programmes to prevent re-offending and how effective they are.

"At the alternative courts and the detention centre they are doing 110 per cent to combat crime among the young, so they don't grow up to be adult re-offenders," she says.

"I think it takes 10 to 15 years to see the benefits of this kind of approach and Red Hook has only been going for four. People want immediate results, but you need to take a long-term approach."

Mr Casey hopes to extend next October's programme beyond visits to Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and the Bronx, to enable the pupils, through local agencies, to join in the work being done in and for the community.

The trip does not come cheap, at around pound;1,000 per head, but it's well worth it in Mr Casey's view.

"The transition from Higher to Advanced Higher requires students to go beyond the course books and get underneath the subject. This is where the visit pays dividends," he says. "Travelling the subway, walking the streets of the Bronx and going inside a juvenile detention centre gives them a reality.

"It's not about white middle-class kids feeling compassion for black and Hispanic kids who've missed out on the American Dream. It's about coming face to face with a justice system and looking at the alternatives that are being pursued."

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