Count local officers of the court among those concerned enough about youths and guns to do something about it. On Friday night, they helped put a group of teenagers through a mock trial — an effort to provide real-world experience with the consequences of gun violence.
“Part of the objective of the mock trial is for kids to see that gun violence has serious consequences,” said Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. “A lot of kids see violence on TV or they play video games and it’s all very abstract. What we’re trying to bring home to them is that gun violence can have serious consequences for victims and people who are closely connected to the victims like families and friends.”
The idea for the mock trial grew out of concerns about a spike in the number of shooting deaths in Tampa and the prevalence of guns among young black males.
Among groups working on the problem is Safe & Sound, run by co-founder and county Commissioner Kevin Beckner. The group decided to concentrate on one neighborhood where gunfire is familiar, Grant Park in East Tampa, to understand and change attitudes there.
“This is a partnership that is a response to a need to start a dialogue about gun violence,” Beckner said.
The Friday night session took place in a real courtroom. The Grant Park teens, almost all African-Americans, were assigned roles as judge, lawyers and jurors, trying a case that could have been pulled from real life — an athlete is shot and no longer can play football.
They started with a test on their attitudes toward guns and crime. Allowed to answer anonymously, about 20 percent said they might carry a gun through their neighborhoods, and the same number wouldn’t turn in a friend involved in gun violence.
Freddy Barton, director of Safe & Sound, has come to know teens in Grant Park, home to one of nine Stay and Play recreation centers where the city extended park hours until midnight this summer to keep kids off the streets.
Safe & Sound organized Friday night workshops at the park on leadership, neighborhood mapping and violence prevention. The workshops were well-attended, and Barton found young people eager to talk about their anxiety over gun violence.
“They say, ‘We love our community. We love our rec center. We love our neighbors. But we can’t stand gun violence,’ ” he said.
“We asked, ‘How many of you know someone who has a gun?’ Most of the kids raised their hands. They wanted to know why it was happening in their community.”
During the discussions, the participants showed an interest in the criminal justice system. They were surprised, for example, to learn they could be arrested and prosecuted for being in the company of someone who commits a gun crime.
The efforts of Safe & Sound dovetailed with those of another group alarmed at the number of gun cases in juvenile court, created with help from Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard.
“I’ve been up here six years, and it was pretty rare to see kids with guns,” Stoddard said. “Now we’re seeing them every week, sometimes every day.”
Stoddard created an ad hoc youth gun-violence study group. The group was open to just about anybody who was concerned about the problem and includes lawyers, prosecutors, judges and police officers.
“You can’t just wring your hands and say too bad,” he said. “You have to do something.”
Stoddard attended Safe & Sound’s June meeting and suggested the two groups collaborate. Everyone agreed. Barton was chosen as liaison.
The mock court idea was embraced by the state attorney and public defender offices.
Lawyers from the office of Public Defender Julieanne Holt volunteered to work with teens selected to perform as them in the mock court.
The mock trial also provided an opportunity for Safe & Sound to research teens’ perceptions and knowledge of the criminal justice system before they participated and after.
USF’s Heide had the participants fill out questionnaires before and after the make-believe trial.
Questions included whether participants in a gun crime where someone is seriously injured would be eligible for probation. The answer is no.
“I think it’s important for people to be educated about what the criminal justice system is like, the difference between the adult system and juvenile systems and how the courts work,” Holt said. “I think that, depending on how you educate people, you may be able to change behavior and perhaps culture through this process.”
By Mike Salinero | Tribune Staff
Published: August 8, 2015 | Updated: August 8, 2015 at 09:04 AM