YOUNGSTOWN – Be it a judge, lawyer, probation officer or bailiff, legal careers provide an opportunity to help people and serve the community.
That was the main takeaway from Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Carla Baldwin, who spoke with middle and high school students virtually during a Brain Gain Navigators event March 8. Baldwin shared her experiences with the students and answered their questions.
Overall, the event was well received by the more than 100 students and mentors who attended. Emma Terlesky, a sixth-grader at Boardman Center Intermediate School, said she believed the event gave her a good idea of what it takes to be a judge.
“My grandpa is a police officer and he’s taught me all about judges and all of that,” Terlesky said. “Just hearing it from a real judge makes me wonder if I want to be a judge one day.”
Terlesky is a member of the Young Women’s Mentorship program through the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, one of the mentorship groups to participate in the event.
One lesson that resonated the most was Baldwin’s emphasis on kindness and empathy. While it’s the judge’s responsibility to ensure justice is served when someone has done wrong, Baldwin said it’s important to consider how the individual ended up in court in the first place.
“I’ve yet to encounter an individual who said, ‘I want to be a defendant when I grow up,’ ” Baldwin said. “You have to recognize that people just don’t happen to appear in front of a judge. Something has happened.”
Oftentimes, an unaddressed trauma or mental health issue or substance abuse disorder could be what brings someone before the court, she said. So it’s important to be kind to people and love them. “You have to want to get them into a better spot than where they are now,” she said.
That resonated with Jazilyn Velazquez, who said she believes kindness is particularly important when being a judge. During a virtual post-event discussion conducted by The Business Journal with members of the Young Women’s Mentorship program, Velazquez said she feels it’s something she would be able to do.
“Not everyone is kind to one another,” Velazquez said. “You have to be patient. And some people are not like that.”
Judge Baldwin told how she put kindness into practice during one of her most memorable cases.
Some criminal case defendants can apply for Veterans Treatment Court, which provides help to get them stabilized and free of addictive substances, Baldwin said. The individual in the case she cited participated in veterans court, “and he just blossomed,” Baldwin said.
“He was a totally different person,” Baldwin said. “He stopped using drugs. He started to engage more with his family. He was working regularly. And then when he graduated, he was almost in tears, thanking me and thanking the team who worked with me to pull this program off.
“That moment I will never forget, because that’s why I’m here,” Baldwin said. “To help people be better than when I first met them.”
While it’s important to be kind, a judge must work hard to render an appropriate verdict, she told the students. Danajah Coleman, who attends the University of Toledo and is a graduate of the Inspiring Minds program in Warren, asked Baldwin how she doesn’t get attached to very sensitive cases.
“Oh, you get attached,” Baldwin responded. “But you have to learn. And it’s a hard thing. You have to learn to compartmentalize.”
The responsibility of her position requires Baldwin to leave her personal issues at the door, she said. The judge commended the team in her office, as well as the probation department and administrative office for easing some of that burden.
Coleman is majoring in communications at Toledo with minors in criminal justice and counseling. She aspires to be a juvenile probation officer before going to law school.
“I want to work in juvenile law,” she said during the post-event follow up with The Business Journal. “Kids need help when they’re in the system. And knowing that I can be the person to help them, it makes me want to change the system.”
Tonié Smith, a student at Inspiring Minds, said it was interesting how Baldwin is able to compartmentalize sensitive cases. She believes it would be difficult to remain detached.
“I would find myself getting personally attached and wanting to see that story go through,” Smith said.
During the event, a few of the students asked Baldwin if she ever made a wrong decision. Sometimes when given the chance to not go to jail, defendants still don’t behave appropriately, Baldwin responded, in which case the mistake is giving someone a chance who didn’t deserve one. The flip side is sending someone to jail who would have done well given the opportunity to be out, she added.
Making those decisions is one of the hardest parts of the job, “and I don’t make those decisions lightly,” she said.
“When I was a prosecutor, I was making recommendations. But now, I am the final decision maker,” she said. “This is a very hard job because you’re dealing with people. Sometimes you want people to make decisions for themselves to make their lives better. And they won’t.”
Doing the work requires a lot of education and experience, she said. Critical thinking and effective communication – both verbal and written – are two of the most important skills, she said. To sharpen those skills, Baldwin suggested the students participate in speech clubs and debate teams in school, because they teach students to think on their feet and be comfortable with expressing their thoughts.
It’s also important to make decisions based on the facts in the case and the law, not on one’s personal biases, she said, which can be difficult.
“If I’m sentencing somebody, then my job is to be fair and to be individualized, and not to treat the person in front of me like the last person,” she said. “My belief is everybody deserves to get respect when they walk into this courtroom. So I try to live by that.”
However, when she does make a mistake, “I try to own it. And I encourage you all to do the same,” she added. When anyone makes a mistake, it’s important to determine how to correct it, she said.
“Like I tell my staff, when we know better, we do better,” she says. “So I’m committed to that myself.”
As administrative and presiding judge of the court, Baldwin is also responsible for the court itself, including hiring, firing discipline, safety, payroll and budget.
“Not fun stuff,” she allowed. “When you manage a multi-million-dollar budget, it’s a lot of work.”
Kathy Hunt, a mentor with the Young Women’s Mentorship program, said she appreciated how the judge told students they must think about how their actions can affect their future.
“She stressed to the children that consequences, decisions that you make in life will point you toward the direction you go,” Hunt said.
Linda Frease, a school counselor at Boardman Center Intermediate, connected how important school is to any future career, as well as building good study habits.
“Sometimes, a lot of [the students] don’t like school and they wonder why they need math and science and things that they feel are never going to be important to them,” Frease said. “I think she really got the point across how important schooling is for the girls.”
Baldwin offered advice for students who are interested in a legal career. She also explained how not all lawyers deal with criminal law. Business attorneys, for example, work with new businesses to draw up contracts to ensure the business owner and contractor are both protected. They also ensure companies follow appropriate employment standards, she said.
“There are attorneys for just about everything,” Baldwin said.
Whatever the path the students want for themselves, Baldwin encouraged them to “go for it,” particularly the young women and young people of color who attended the event. The judge cited a recent news story that reported of the 709 judges in Ohio, “only 56 identify as Black,” she said.
“I was 12 when I decided I wanted to become a judge. I didn’t recognize there had never been a Black female who sat in this seat in Mahoning County,” Baldwin said. “I fought and I worked hard to get here. And it is my goal to build, to hold the ladder for the next generation.”
Pictured at top: Judge Carla Baldwin, administrative and presiding judge for the Youngstown Municipal Court, stands inside her courtroom downtown. Baldwin answered students’ questions about legal careers for the Brain Gain Navigators program.