The Catholic University of America

 

 

Second year Catholic University law student William McDermott wields a gavel in teen court for Montgomery County, Maryland.



Law Student by Day, Judge by Night

 

The defendants stand accused of minor crimes: shoplifting, petty theft and illegal drug or alcohol possession. Most are minors themselves, eager to avoid a terrifying brush with Montgomery County, Maryland’s juvenile justice system and a permanent record of conviction.
Given the opportunity, many young offenders will choose Montgomery County Juvenile Diversion Court. There, the trial they stand comes with two major differences: they will truly be judged by a jury of their peers, meaning other teens, and the presiding judge could well be Catholic University law student William “Billy” McDermott.
Begun in 1997, the teen court is a proven success. More than 90 percent of the young men and women who come before it have no further trouble or contact with the juvenile justice system. Provided that the sentences handed down—which could include community service, an essay on how peer pressure leads to bad choices or a shoplifting education course—are carried out within 90 days, there is no criminal record to shadow defendants later in life.
For Judge McDermott, 2D, the court usually succeeds in nudging teens back on to the straight and narrow path while there is still time.
                  
“Shame plays an integral part in the process. As first-time offenders, their parents almost always accompany them to the proceedings,” said McDermott. “Sitting in the witness stand and fielding tough questions from a jury of their peers has an indescribable effect. Crying is a common occurrence. And that’s most powerful when it’s not the offender crying, but rather their parents.”

McDermott found his way to the bench almost by accident. He first heard about Montgomery County Juvenile Diversion Court last summer while interning at the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office. Having spent a year as a special education teacher before starting law school, he was intrigued by the thought of working with young people again and volunteered for the court. He expected to be assigned administrative duties such as filing and copying documents, but when a sitting judge was unable to make it in one evening he was asked if he wanted to sit as a judge. Nervous and unprepared, but game, McDermott said yes.
“I was given a set of robes to borrow from one of the circuit court judges and jumped right into the fire head first. I have loved every second of it since!” he said.
Surprisingly, not yet being a member of the Maryland bar is not an obstacle. The court is really more of a mediation process dressed in court clothing. Offenders are not forced to appear in the Juvenile Diversion Court, but gain access to it only if they contractually agree with the state’s attorney’s office to abide by its judgments. In effect, the court’s authority comes from the defendants that appear before it, not from the state.
“The court has a dual role, instilling fear and redemption but also allowing the first-time teen offender to recount the reasons which led them to their criminal act,” said McDermott. “As peers, the teen juries are more keenly aware of the particular problems that young people face. They are more apt to know when a teen offender is telling the truth, or when a teen offender is trying to confuse an older populate with details that are nonsensical.”
The experience of serving as a robed judged while still in law school has been a phenomenal one. McDermott’s job is to make sure that the process moves forward. That means informing the teen jury of mandatory sentencing guidelines, but also allowing some creativity in teen-to-teen justice. A musically-inclined offender may be sentenced to write a song for his victims, for example, or a talented writer may be told to pen a letter of apology to his family.
When McDermott graduates in 2011 he hopes to land a judicial clerkship, followed by a position as an assistant state’s attorney. He is certainly open to a professional future on the bench.
“Sitting as a judge on this court I’m privileged to see both the best in some people and the promise of greatness in others,” he said.