Express Yourself—Learning to Debate
Debating the issues is a privilege for citizens living in a democratic society. We have the right to express our views, but doing so means following a few basic rules.
Prepare your students to participate in public debate by encouraging everyone to have an equal voice and to listen respectfully to the viewpoints of others.
Keep It Short, Stay on Topic
Parliamentary procedure sounds formal, but its rules ensure an orderly and constructive public debate:
- The meeting moderator calls the gathering to order. There may be old business to conclude and new business to introduce.
- Listen carefully to the proceedings. Think in advance of what you want to say.
- When you want to speak, raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged by the moderator.
- Give your name and briefly state why you wish to speak about the issue being discussed.
- Speak clearly and stay on topic; read from notes if it is helpful. Avoid meaningless digressions or irrelevant statements.
- If you disagree with another person’s remarks, raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged. Keep your comments focused and avoid personal attacks.
- When all discussion has ended, the moderator will adjourn, or end, the meeting.
Use the rules above to organize a classroom debate on this question: Should the U.S. court system try juveniles as adults?
Background: In the early days of the U.S. justice system, most crimes were punished with physical sentences such as lashings or executions. In the 1800s, prisons were built to house criminals and offer them a means of rehabilitation. Some reformers began to argue that young people convicted of crimes should be treated differently from adults. With the right kind of help, reformers argued, a younger person might be turned away from a life of crime.
Compare the modern U.S. juvenile justice system to that of the adult justice system:
Have students consider these two viewpoints and examples:
YES—Juveniles should be tried as adults.
“I can think of instances in which a young person had deliberately planned and committed such a serious crime that the only place they can be tried is the adult justice system.”
—A judge in Michigan
In Florida, a twelve-year-old boy killed a six-year-old playmate. The boy claimed that the death was an accident that happened while the two were wrestling. During the trial, it came out that the older boy had a violent history. This fact, and the extremely young age of the deceased, led authorities to charge the twelve-year-old as an adult. In 2001, he was found guilty of murder and became the youngest person ever sentenced to life in prison.
NO—Juveniles should not be tried as adults.
“I think that over the course of a person’s life, we all change. Crime committed as a youth does not necessarily indicate that a person will lead a life of crime as an adult.”
—An attorney in Michigan
One New Jersey rehabilitation program for youths who have committed serious crimes claims that only 27 percent of its graduates commit more crimes. The program includes boot-camp-style discipline, classroom study, substance abuse counseling, job training, and lessons in building self-esteem. Program leaders believe that by changing attitudes and behaviors, even the most difficult young offenders can change.
Extend Learning: Take a Poll
Extend learning by conducting a poll at the end of the activity. Ask “Should the U.S. court system try juveniles as adults?” Students may answer “yes,” “no,” or “undecided.” Try the poll first with a show of hands; then try the poll with secret ballots. Discuss with the class how and why the responses may differ.
Also, be sure to check out our election poll on the site.