Law students gain hands-on legal experience working with Juvenile Safe Surrender clients

Kathryn Geisinger, a third-year law student at Case Western Reserve University, wasn’t quite sure how busy her Monday morning would be. But within the first three hours of the first-ever Juvenile Safe Surrender program in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, there she was, working with defendants in five criminal cases before a magistrate.

Geisinger was one of eight students from the School of Law’s Criminal Justice Clinic getting real hands-on experience working the Safe Surrender Program, which continues through Thursday at the Juvenile Justice Center at 9300 Quincy Ave. on Cleveland’s East Side. Two other law students were gaining experience Monday as prosecutors in the South Euclid Municipal Court.

Professors Judith Lipton and Carmen Naso, who lead the law school’s Criminal Justice Clinic, helped guide students through the juvenile court process. All 10 third-year clinic students are certified legal interns, which allows them to do pro bono (for the public good without charge) legal work for clients as law faculty provide supervision and guidance.

Later, first-year law students arrived to help with Juvenile Safe Surrender as part of the law school’s new curriculum that puts a greater emphasis on introducing experiential learning as soon as possible. The first-year students worked intake or information desks or shadowed the clinical third-year students.

It was an important opportunity this week for the law students to get experience in a Juvenile Court setting, Lipton and Naso said.

Other Case Western Reserve students working the Safe Surrender Program were from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. Dan Flannery, director of the school’s Dr. Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education, was present for research purposes, along with several doctoral students and research staff from the Begun Center. Some of the school’s graduate students became involved with Juvenile Safe Surrender as part of their field experience.

Modeled after the successful adult Fugitive Safe Surrender program, Juvenile Safe Surrender allows people who were issued a criminal warrant as juveniles (under age 18) a chance to make their lives right again. They get instant legal representation and a court appearance—and law students get to experience interaction with real clients.

“I’ve been shadowing a public defender, a [CWRU] grad from last year,” Geisinger said.

Geisinger experienced negotiations between a public defender, prosecutor and magistrate as they decided outcomes for each case. She was there as they called each defendant for a short hearing.

“At one of the hearings, the juvenile hadn’t turned himself in because he was worried he would have to then have a drug test or get thrown in jail,” Geisinger said. “The magistrate was very understanding. The defendant found out he didn’t have to be scared.

“The magistrates tended to be very lenient, because they are just happy that these people came in to take responsibility for their actions,” she said. “I think that process will build a sense of trust for future for these people who have had warrants out on them.”

Geisinger assisted Sarah Gatti, a post-graduate fellow at the Cuyahoga County Public defender’s office. Gatti graduated from Case Western Reserve Law School last spring.

“Juvenile Safe Surrender provides a very different view of the practice law,” Gatti said. “You would not get that just from simply learning the law in the classroom or by reading about cases or going over statutes. You get to see the different styles of the magistrates and the way people respond in a courtroom setting. For a law student, these are the skills you need. Managing the human element is very important.”

CWRU law student Ron Lemieux became part of a plea negotiation for a female adult with a juvenile warrant. “This was a very safe way for her to finally take care of a warrant,” he said.

“This is an outgrowth of the adult Fugitive Safe Surrender program that we have run in over 30 cities around the country since 2005,” said Flannery, who helped create Fugitive Safe Surrender. “So we thought it would be appropriate to try a Juvenile Safe Surrender, because of the outstanding felony warrants in particular. In this county, there are just over 900 juveniles with outstanding felony warrants and over 5,000 adults that still have outstanding juvenile felony warrants.”

There are benefits for those who voluntarily turn themselves in.

“Typically, those who surrender tell us they are taking advantage of an opportunity for favorable consideration, to get their cases taken care of,” Flannery said. “If they are older, they may do it because they want to go back to school or get a legitimate job or get a driver’s license back. You can’t do any of those things with an open warrant. It’s also true that if you have a felony warrant and you get stopped on the street or for a traffic violation, you’re going to go to jail.”

The program is not about amnesty. The goal is to help young people face a criminal warrant and let the criminal justice system get them support services they may need. Flannery said important research was also going on, too.

“We are responsible for gathering the information on who comes through the front door and have them complete a survey the county can use,” he said. “The survey information is gathered anonymously about who they are and why they are here.”