Class of 2016: Brunswick senior fights for youth justice

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BRUNSWICK — Emma Nagler spends a couple days a month in a closed classroom, mediating between juveniles fighting a criminal record and their often angry parents or guardians.

What may sound like a nightmare for some is actually a passion for Nagler, one she thinks might launch a career in criminal justice after college.

Nagler is graduating with the Class of 2016 at Brunswick High School June 10. While her interests range from cross-country to Spanish, volunteering for criminal and restorative justice organizations has emerged as an essential thread in her life.

She works as a youth advocate for Maine Youth Court, an organization that offers an alternative to court hearings, and as a volunteer reader for College Guild, a Brunswick-based nonprofit that helps educate prisoners.

“I’ve said yes to quite a few things, but Youth Court and College Guild are kind of what I’ve held onto,” Nagler said in an interview Wednesday.

Nagler’s interest in criminal justice started when Julie Zimmerman, a founder of College Guild, asked her to be a reader at their Quaker meeting house.

Nagler agreed, and started reading prisoners’ assignments sent through the mail. She’d respond with her own letters.

She said her “ah-ha” moment came when she was reading a man’s assignments from a history course. Though she doesn’t remember the exact topic of the class, she recalls getting into an intense back-and-forth exchange about the historical roots of Irish tap dancing.

“I never knew it was possible to have an intellectual discussion through the mail,” she said. But more importantly, she realized “there are brilliant people, and amazing artists or poets” who are incarcerated, she said. “I found that out with College Guild.”

Youth Court, Nagler said, is a strong preventative step for those who might otherwise enter the prison system.

In specific cases, Youth Court can be recommended instead of a court hearing by a minor’s parole officer, she explained. Then, Youth Court assigns advocates for the minor, for victims – usually a minor’s parents or guardians – and to affected community members.

After a hearing, usually held in a high school classroom, a tribunal of three Youth Court volunteers issue a disposition, which can take the form of community service, monetary damage, or a letter of acknowledgement, to name a few.

If a minor goes through the Youth Court process, only a summons shows up on his or her record, not a court hearing.

Nagler said when she represents an offender, “I try to represent what their intentions were … and try to find (their) best qualities.” She said the hearings can get emotional, especially in cases involving drugs and alcohol.

“(Those cases) are really emotional for the kids and families,” she said. “A couple cases kind of touched me … as I’d be (thinking) about a friend that might be in a similar situation.”

After graduation, Nagler said she will continue working at Youth Court through the summer, as well as reading College Guild assignments. She will enroll at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in the fall.

She plans on majoring in psychology and Spanish, because being bilingual is a “big asset … for criminal justice,” she said.

Nagler is also interested in Clark’s accelerated five-year master’s track. Although she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do in the criminal justice field, she thinks she sure about one thing.

“I’m not really interested in being a lawyer,” she said. But, she added, just like how she found College Guild and Youth Court, things could always change.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick High School Senior Emma Nagler hopes to have a career in criminal justice. She and the rest of her class will graduate Friday, June 10, at 7 p.m. at the Sidney J. Watson Ice Arena at Bowdoin College.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.