HAMMOND — It was like an episode of TV's "Law and Order" come to life when a group of students from the Hammond Area Career Center visited the federal courthouse in Hammond on Wednesday.
The 58 juniors and seniors from across Lake County, who are taking a criminal justice class at the Hammond Area Career Center, had an opportunity to learn how the judicial system works.
The students were invited into the courthouse to meet judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and federal law enforcement officers, along with learning about jury selection and registering to vote.
The program was sponsored by the Northern District of Indiana Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, and the organization hopes to hold a similar program in South Bend and Fort Wayne before the year's end and make this an annual event across the northern jurisdiction.
Gary's Wirt/Emerson students will visit the court May 3.
As the Hammond students walked into the courtroom and took seats in the jury box, defendant's section and audience, they were asked to be quiet and rise when the judge entered the room.
Hammond Gavit senior Anna Wagner said being in the austere court environment was "a little bit scary."
Judge Philip Simon, who has been on the bench almost 15 years, quickly put the teens at ease and talked about his career as a judge, prosecutor and attorney.
He said he has about 400 cases on his docket, about 250 civil and the remainder are criminal cases. The students peppered him with questions, from what motivates him to do his job every day to the path he took to become a judge.
"What motivates me is to do justice, to do the right thing," he said.
"What I do weighs on me greatly. The decisions I make affect people's lives. Almost every decision you make is based on shades of gray. I am driven by the facts and the law. I try to do the right thing every day."
Jonathan Reid, from the U.S. Probation Office for the Northern District, talked about the history of the probation system and the services it offers.
"Pre-sentencing reports are written for the judge, and the report includes the offense, criminal history, offender characteristics and sentencing options," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Toi Houston showed short video segments of criminal cases that occurred in Lake County, and talked about her office, which prosecutes federal crimes such as public corruption, gangs, mail and wire fraud, health care fraud and environmental fraud.
She talked to the teens about how investigators build and solve a case.
The Department of Homeland Security's Jeffrey Gonzalez brought his partner, Sammy, a German Shepherd, who can sniff out explosives. "If we're not working, we're training," Gonzalez said.
Hammond High School senior Victoria Kemp, 18, and Lake Central High School junior Andrew Pfeiffer, 16, both want to go into the legal branch.
Kemp, who plans to major in criminal justice at Calumet College of St. Joseph, said she also will join the National Guard.
"We learned in class about the different positions but actually talking to them in person, we learned about the obstacles they face in their everyday jobs," she said.
Pfeiffer wants to go into the military and eventually join the FBI.
"There was so much information that I learned from this," he said. "I enjoyed the judge and the probation office. They really gave us an inside look at what they do."