It starts innocently enough with an idea for a party to celebrate prom and the graduating class of 2013.
It’s the weekend of prom and an 18-year-old senior and his friends don’t have the money to attend prom and book a hotel room, so he opts to hold a party at the beach for one last hurrah, 3rd Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Strance tells a group of Konawaena High School seniors.
To give it a special Wildcat feel, the 18-year-old and a 17-year-old friend break into the Konawaena High School gym to “borrow” basketball jerseys. In the process, a light fixture is broken and the 17-year-old spray paints “Class of 2013” on the wall, she said.
“Does anyone see a crime being committed?” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sheri Lawson asks the approximately 140 seniors.
Lawson receives a variety of answers from the young men and women in the crowd from breaking and entering and criminal property damage to he was “just borrowing” the jersey.
“Returning the property doesn’t make it OK,” said Lawson. “It’s still theft.”
In reality, those actions could leave the 18-year-old facing criminal property damage, burglary, theft and vandalism charges resulting in possible fines, fees, jail time, probation and restitution, among other conditions of punishment, Lawson said. Burglary, depending upon the degree of severity, is a felony. So is theft — if the value of items stolen exceeds $300.
“You folks have reached a very important milestone in your lives and the decisions you make going forward will be your own,” Strance said, explaining that at age 18 a person becomes a legal adult. “In some ways, it’s a formal acknowledgement of adulthood.”
“If you are convicted, it is a life sentence because it is part of your permanent criminal record. That really has far-reaching consequences.”
More than 140 Konawaena High School seniors and a handful of juniors took part in the presentation by Strance, Lawson, Deputy Public Defender Peter Bresciani and Aolani Mills, a judiciary program specialist and former probation officer.
Senior Karry Southerland, who will turn 18 about a month after graduation, said the event helped reinforce to her that the mistakes you make as a young adult stick with you for life — whether it’s a misdemeanor offense or felony sexual assault.
“You need to be careful if you’re doing things wrong and just stop and think about your life,” she said, noting other schools should host similar events. “The charges will stick with you.”
The group spent about an hour going through a variety of scenarios to explain just how some innocuous decisions could have huge ramifications.
Bresciani provided a reality check on just what a public defender can do.
Mills told students about the reality of being on probation, since to many it may not seem as bad as incarceration.
“One false move can make you be on my caseload, and once you’re on my caseload, your ass belongs to me,” Mills said, explaining a probation officer is involved in nearly every aspect of a probationer’s life from knowing who you mingle with to watching to ensure a urine test is conducted properly.
“That’s probation — it’s worse than prison. You do not want to be on probation.”
The discussion’s intent is to drive home the fact seniors, who may be 17 now, will become adults when their 18th birthday rolls around, said Molly Satta-Ellis, a social studies teacher who coordinated the event. Normally, just her sociology class made up of upperclassmen visits Strance’s court for the talk.
“We want to be sure they hear these things before the weekend of prom and, then, graduation,” said Satta-Ellis. “We want them to make the connection between their decisions and life after high school.”