ALTOONA, Pa. — Students in Penn State Altoona’s Criminal Justice Organization (CJO) took part in the 2023 Federal Mock Sentencing Exercise at the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Johnstown on Oct. 24. In its second year, the exercise was created by Federal District Judge Mark A. Kearney and is supported by the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Law Related Education Committee.
For the exercise, students selected a hypothetical criminal case at the sentencing stage. They were provided with copies of a hypothetical indictment, pre-sentencing investigation report, victim impact statements, and mitigation memo, along with an educational video prepared by Kearney demonstrating sentencing procedures at the federal level. Using these tools, students prepared and delivered arguments in front of Judge Stephanie L. Haines as if they were the prosecuting and defense attorneys in the case. Haines then decided on an appropriate sentence, using the students’ arguments.
“This was a tremendous learning experience for our students,” said Nathan E. Kruis, assistant professor of criminal justice. “We plan on making this an annual activity. Students learn more about sentencing at the federal level through this exercise than they ever will from a textbook or in a classroom setting.”
Four students participated in the role-playing while other students in the CJO watched and learned from the presentations and instruction given by Haines and United States probation officer Stacy Miller.
“It is obvious that Judge Haines and Officer Miller really care about our students and their futures,” Kruis said. “Officer Miller spent about 90 minutes on Zoom last week with Nathan Soder, who assumed the role of federal probation officer in the exercise and helped him develop a sentencing recommendation to give to Judge Haines before the hearing. Then, Judge Haines walked all the students through the sentencing process on the day of the activity. Both Judge Haines and Officer Miller made time to talk individually with students before and after the exercise, too.”
“I really appreciated that they were very welcoming and friendly, and this was overall a really good educational experience,” said fourth-year student Lam Vo, who played the role of defendant at the mock hearing.
Fourth-year student Jazzmine McCauley played the role of the defense attorney in the case.
“I felt more confident presenting my argument in front of Judge Haines because I participated in the federal mock sentencing last year as a defense attorney, as well,” said McCauley, who is currently interning with Blair County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jackie Bernard. “My internship played a role in preparing my argument. The knowledge gained through observing sentencings at the courthouse gave me the foundation for courtroom procedures, which made me more comfortable presenting at a higher level.”
McCauley plans to attend law school next year and one day practice criminal defense law.
Ziwei Lin played the role of the federal prosecuting attorney. When asked about the experience, Lin remarked, “This opportunity was wonderful. I loved challenging myself to establish a strong argument and Judge Haines complimented both sides.”
Lin is currently interning with the Blair County District Attorney’s Office. He plans to attend law school next year and hopes to become a United States attorney.
Both Lin and McCauley believe that their experiences in the criminal justice program and internships, as well as their participation in this exercise, will give them a leg up in law school.
“I encourage anyone who is interested in law and legal studies to come to Penn State Altoona and get involved in these opportunities,” Lin said.
The trip to Johnstown to participate in the sentencing exercise was made possible with support from Penn State Altoona's Division of Education, Human Development, and Social Sciences, headed by Leigh Ann Haefner, associate professor of science education.