The first Wise County Junior Commonwealth’s Attorney Summer Program wraps up Friday after a week of showing the group of rising sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders how a court system works. County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III said the students have kept a full schedule that looks more like summer school than a summer camp.
“It’s been incredibly successful,” Slemp said of the program. “The most rewarding part is seeing kids’ eyes light up when they see something new and understand it. Instead of sleeping in and playing computer games, they’re asking intelligent questions.”
Slemp credited his office’s public affairs representative, Jessica Hood, and his wife, Erin, with taking his idea for the program and turning it into the nuts and bolts of arranging sessions for the students with judges, police, educators and court support personnel. Several businesses and institutions stepped up to sponsor the program with T-shirts and lunches for the students.
The group started on Monday with learning about the various personnel in a court hearing or case: prosecutors, defense attorneys, court reporters, bailiffs and clerks. Criminal and civil lawyers also spoke to the group about their roles.
“One student asked an attorney how they could defend someone if they thought they were guilty,” Slemp said, “and that turned into a great discussion.”
The group also met with advocates from the county’s Victim Witness Program to learn about support for people affected as crime victims or as court witnesses.
“It’s not always like you see on TV,” said program member Jamie Mullins. “You see ‘Judge Judy’ and how everyone’s up there arguing and the judge is yelling, and then you see a real court and how the lawyers are going up to the bench and everyone’s quiet.”
“One student asked if it really was against the law to drive without your driver’s license,” Slemp said.
On Tuesday, the group met with staff and instructors from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and Mountain Empire Community College to learn about courses and degree programs for a legal or law enforcement career track.
Students Gracie Lane and Kadence Mullis agreed that the program has taught them a lot about how the local court and law enforcement system works, and Mullis said she has learned what she needs to know to start a criminal justice career.
Wednesday saw the students meeting with local police and state troopers to learn about their jobs, and they group got to watch a typical day in General District Court. Slemp said the students also met with probation officers to learn about how adult and juvenile offenders are supervised after sentencing.
Thursday’s agenda will focus on the county Justice Center, where the students will see the workings of the sheriff’s department, magistrate’s office and dispatch center. The group will also see a K-9 team demonstration and the holding cells used before suspects are transferred after arrest to the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail system.
The students wrap up their week Friday with s celebration and lunch.
Jessie Henry, a summer intern in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, said she is impressed with the Junior Commonwealth’s Attorney Summer Program’s inaugural class.
“They’re all really smart,” Henry said. “When I was watching them, they all asked intelligent questions.”
“Every day we play defense by prosecuting criminals, but another side we need to focus on is offense,” Slemp said. “We need to engage the next generation and show them the impact of poor decision-making.”