Chief Magistrate Judge William Jennings III, dressed in a suit instead of his black robe and in the Langford Middle School library instead of his courtroom, crossed his arms and asked 20 students what was on their minds.
“What do y’all want to talk about?” Jennings asked. “What bothers you?”
When the hands went up, some students complained about their teachers, others about kids at school. As the conversation progressed, their questions hinted at deeper issues, such as a girl who didn’t understand why her friend was sentenced to jail on a gun charge.
Whether the conversation was about school or crime, Jennings had a main piece of advice:
“What you don’t want to do for sure is something that will come back and haunt you,” the judge told the youngsters. “If you do, no military, no pediatrician, no astronaut, no lawyer. As time goes on, you get backed into a corner and there are fewer and fewer things you can do. A record will ruin everything for you.”
This week was the launch of a program that puts Augusta Judicial Court judges in schools to meet with students about life, the law and consequences. Known as Judge Not, the program has started with six judges assigned to six low-income schools, but has plans to expand to more students in Richmond County, according to its founder and principal organizer, the Rev. Larry Fryer.
Langford Assistant Principal Major Lee said teachers selected 20 students who have some kind of personal or academic issues to meet with Jennings. Although he said none has had contact with the judicial system, the Judge Not program is a way to prevent them from going down a path of crime that could be dangling in front of them.
“I could have had 200 students in here, but we tried to focus on the students who needed it the most,” Lee said.
During the visit, which lasted more than an hour, Jennings told students it was his focus on education that allowed him to follow his dreams of becoming a lawyer and helped him stand out enough to be appointed as a judge.
Jennings walked around the tables in the library, sat down next to some when they asked questions, and promised to come back on a regular basis.
“If you show up one time in a suit and tie for one time, I don’t think it means beans to them,” Jennings said. “You have to keep coming back. All I can do is try, and if I fail, all I’ve lost is the time. But maybe they’ll learn something. Maybe I’ll learn something.”
Jennings asked the kids what they’d like to be when they grew up. Some shouted out a career in medicine or the military. Others talked about what college they’d like to
“What’s the common denominator in all that?” Jennings asked. “Education. Not only getting your education, but you have to stay and get a good education.”
When the conversation turned to the courtroom, some students asked how many years a certain crime would land someone in jail.
If someone acts out and starts cursing while being fingerprinted, a boy asked, how many more years would that add to a sentence?
“If you know he’s going to go to jail at all, does it matter how long?” Jennings responded. “He’s going to have a record that’s going to knock so many things out for him.”
Fryer said Jennings’ conversational approach is one of many ways judges can make an impact. One of the requirements in the program is that judges meet at least once a month with their schools.
Fryer said judges may choose to take a group out to dinner or to a football game, and most are working with the school to figure out the best approach.
At Lucy C. Laney Comprehensive High School on Friday, Superior Court Judge Daniel Craig spoke to about 50 seniors in the gymnasium, where the students greeted him with a band performance and spirit from the varsity cheerleaders.
The students in front of Craig all had failed the Georgia High School Graduation Test on the first try, and Craig was there to offer study tips and encouragement.
He suggested making a study schedule that included time for rest and making school a priority.
“You can’t prepare for a test while the TV is going,” he said. “You can’t prepare for a test while the radio is playing... you have to study in a place and give your undivided attention.”
He said he planned to return regularly. His goal is to build a relationship with students and keep in touch with them to the point they can pick up the phone at any time and ask for advice or to meet up and talk.
“We would rather not wait until such a time that we have the unfortunate experience of spending time with you in the courtroom,” he said.