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(This blog is the Summer of 2016.)

When I accepted my internship with the Council for Children’s Rights back in March, I knew that they were a non-profit agency that provided legal services to children in the Charlotte area. I would be doing research and working on policy briefs, which would be pretty standard for all of the Duke Public Policy majors completing their policy internships this summer. Finally, I knew that I would be getting some exposure to the legal system, which I hoped would help me decide if law school was the right choice for me.

What I didn’t know then, and could never have prepared for, was how personal the work at Council would become, very, very quickly.

On my first day at work, I met with Emily, my supervisor, got a tour of the office, met most of the staff, and then sat down to spend the morning familiarizing myself with the Council’s mission and structure. A pretty normal first day, I thought to myself.  I went over my summer work plan, and took a look at some Raise the Age documents that detailed the North Carolinian movement to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18.  Presently, 16 and 17-year-old can be tried in the adult court system and sentenced to adult jails and prisons, something I hadn’t even known before I walked into the office. That would be one of my main projects for the summer, doing research and compiling briefs and infographics on the movement’s progress.  Emily showed me around Plaza Midwood, a popular Charlotte neighborhood where we ate lunch, and then, when we got back to the office, my day shifted abruptly into a much higher gear.

The moment I stepped foot into the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, a towering white building with vaulted ceilings and dark wood, an unfamiliar weight settled over me.  Emily and I were there to attend a detention hearing -my very first court hearing ever- where a Council attorney would act as guardian ad litem for a juvenile without representation.  That day, the juvenile was a fifteen-year-old boy, already in the system for an unspecified act of delinquency, who’d been acting out in school.  The judge, staring down sternly from his bench at the head of the courtroom, addressed all of the boy’s recent incidents. I was too enraptured to even take notes, and now, many different hearings later, I can’t even remember what the ruling was, except that he would continue to stay with his foster mother.  I do remember marveling at how young the boy looked, sitting beside our attorney, eyes downcast and brow furrowed as everyone in the room discussed his behavior as though he wasn’t present.

It was on the walk back to the office that one of my co-workers told me the boy’s birthday was next week -his sixteenth birthday to be specific. I froze, processing this information. I suddenly understood that this teenager -who still looked much like a child, with his scrawny build, curly dark hair and sad eyes- was going to be an adult in the eyes of the North Carolinian justice system, in just a few days. And then the next outburst or slip-up, no matter how small, could mean prison for him.

This was why Council was having me attend court, my boss explained. I would never understand the policies I was working with on a macro-level until I saw them enacted on a micro-level. Up close, and very personal.