Pubdate: Thu, 11 Jan 2007
Source: Addison Independent (Middlebury, VT)
Copyright: 2007 The Addison County Independent
Author: Megan James
Bookmark: (Students - United States)


MIDDLEBURY - The Honorable William K. Sessions, chief judge of the 
U.S. District Court in Vermont, passed the gavel to Middlebury Union 
High School students on Tuesday, sharing with them specific cases 
from his work in the federal courts system, and giving them the 
opportunity to determine how they would deliver a sentence.

Sessions' roots are deep in Addison County. The Cornwall resident 
graduated from Middlebury College in 1969, served as a public 
defender for Addison County from 1974 to 1978 and formed the 
Middlebury law firm Sessions, Keiner, Dumont and Barnes. His wife, 
Abigail, has served as principal of Salisbury Elementary School, and 
his three children, Hannah, Myra and Jonathan, all graduated from MUHS.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Sessions as Vermont's chief 
judge, a federal district court position he will hold for life.

His presentation was a part of the high school's year-long symposium 
on truth, a program that, since September, has brought artists, 
poets, journalists and other honesty-seekers from all over the 
country to explore the often slippery definition of truth.

But Sessions, who deals in justice, imposing reason on those slippery 
facts, showed the students just how systematic the business of truth can be.

"When you deal with justice and truth, you can't do it in the 
abstract," he said. "There are standards."

A judge doesn't just go with his gut, Sessions said, he boils down 
all his sentences to four specific factors: the appropriateness of 
the punishment, specific deterrence (how his sentence suggests to the 
convicted person that he not commit the crime again), general 
deterrence (how his sentence suggests to society that anyone will be 
punished for criminal behavior) and rehabilitation.

"You have an awesome responsibility," he said. "You're a judge, you 
have a black robe. And even though the black robe makes it look like 
you are wise beyond your years, you still need to know a lot. What 
are those things you'd like to know before you use that awesome power 
and responsibility to put someone in a jail cell?"

Sessions set up the scene with a recent case, a man in his early-20s, 
who, Sessions said, "doesn't look any different from any of you." The 
boy became addicted to heroin at the age of 16 and ended up with a 
loaded gun in his custody, dealing heroin to a younger clientele in a 
small Vermont community.

The students were hard-nosed with their sentences when Sessions asked 
them what they would do. Many said he deserved to go to jail, some 
suggested even harsher punishments.

But then Sessions took out a letter the young man had written him 
just a few weeks ago, since the case has closed. He read it aloud to 
the rapt audience, putting a face to the convicted drug-dealer's 
case, showing the students that the young man, who had lost his 
father at 6 years old, had already hit rock bottom, that he was a 
slave to his addiction and had begun the process of rehabilitation at 
Maple Leaf Farm in Underhill.

Determining a sentence became more complicated.

Some students held their ground that the drug-dealer should be 
incarcerated. His story about losing his father and learning to hate 
himself was nothing but a sob story, they said, and he should be 
removed from society.

But others suggested that sending a criminal to prison shouldn't be 
the only solution. Senior Skyler Browder said that cutting a person 
off from society, no matter what they've done, will never teach that 
person how to properly function within society.

"It was hard to listen to the other students," Browder said, 
referring to one student's radical suggestion that heroin dealers be 
given HIV-infected needles to use on themselves. "A comment like that 
kind of hit home about the society we live in, one that's too focused 
on punishment."

But when another student suggested intensive counseling rather than 
prison time, Sessions threw another curveball.

"Let's say you don't know the facts of this case," he said. "You're 
sitting at home and you open up a newspaper and see this headline: 
Judge gives heroin-dealer and gun-possessor probation. What are you 
going to think?"

Sessions had never given a talk to a group of high school students, 
let alone an entire school, but he seemed to have a knack for getting 
them thinking and involved.

"You feed off an audience," he said. "You can tell when they're listening."

And by the way the students gasped and then broke out into discussion 
amongst themselves after he spoke, it was clear they'd been 
listening, and that he'd brought them back to the beginning again in 
their search for the definition of truth. 
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