Susan Zuiderveen is a third-year Cooley student serving on an externship. This is the sixth post in Susan’s outstanding series.
Recently I was able to attend 17 sentencing hearings. As I watched, I realized how difficult it can be for judges to make decisions and how their decisions affect so many lives in such a dramatic way. Before our day started, the Judge shared the sentencing reports she reviewed over the weekend to prepare for Monday’s busy schedule. As I read through them I was amazed at how many of the people had several past felonies and at how young so many of the people were. Three young men were between the ages of 15 and 17 years old. Most had not graduated from high school. Some had violated parole and were coming in for sentencing because of their violations, and some were receiving their sentences after their trials. I read through their files trying to understand what their backgrounds were and what was going on in their lives. Some were involved in gangs and dealing drugs, and others had committed violent acts. Most were repeat offenders. The Judge walked me through her thinking about the sentencing and what affected her decision regarding each sentence and the guidelines that applied. What an incredible learning opportunity!
As the defendants came before the Judge, she did her best to stress the importance of education for those receiving parole or drug education sentences. She tried to stress the importance of turning their lives around so they would not appear in front of her again. Most just said, “Yes Ma’am” and hung their heads. Some of the people sentenced were brought in wearing the orange jump suit and handcuffs with several sheriff deputies standing guard. Some asked through tears for lesser sentences; others smiled when they received less than they expected. It was definitely an emotional day for all involved.
But what really touched me that day is that it was also a tough day for the Judge. She listened intently to the defendants when they were given time to speak to her before they were sentenced. They talked about how they had jobs they didn’t want to lose and that they had children they wanted to see. For those who committed non-violent crimes or those who didn’t have as many repeat offenses, you could see the Judge thinking through all the information thoughtfully before she sentenced them. The Judge seemed to have a harder time with these defendants. It was definitely easier to sentence those defendants with the more violent histories or those who had several felonies on their record. When we got back into the Judge’s chambers, I could tell she was exhausted and emotionally drained.
I am fortunate to have been allowed to participate in a part of the Judge’s job that I would not have had the opportunity to experience without this externship. By allowing me into her thought process both before and after sentencing, I gained a tremendous respect and appreciation for the difficult decisions judges must make. I also learned that even for someone who has been a judge for a number of years, it isn’t easy making decisions that affect another human being’s life in such a dramatic way.