Lawyers Tell Teens: One Little Prank Can Ruin Your Whole Future

Attorneys from the Public Defender's Office have been giving junior-high and high-school pupils lectures during the school year about the fine line between pranks and criminal acts.

"We are responsible for imparting the information, the children must be responsible for their choices," said Esther Goldfeld, an educational consultant at Katzir B junior high in Rehovot.

Police figures show that about 10 percent of all the felons who were caught in 2007 were minors - almost 14,000 children and teenagers. However, the number of police files opened for teenagers dropped in 2007, reaching 33,000 files, mostly for violence and property offenses.

"You walk around with a knife in your pocket just because it gives you a sense of security," says attorney Gil Edelman in a lecture to dozens of junior-high pupils in Katzir B. He uses everyday examples, the kind he represents in court.

"Other children want to hurt you and in response you take out the knife. You must know that the penalty for just having a knife is five years in prison."

Taking a cell phone from another pupil, with the use of force and without his permission, is a theft as far as the law is concerned, he says. "If the pupil demands money for returning the phone, it's extortion by threat."

As the children filed into the lecture hall, one of them slaps his neighbor's shoulder, beginning a chain game. The neighbor passes the slap on to the next youth, who does the same, providing Edelman with his opening.

"Someone who gets hit a little too hard will settle the score in the interval," he says. "Perhaps he'll use a stick, perhaps invite mates. Before you know it, you could be charged with assault in aggravated circumstances."

The lecture program assumes that most teenagers are not familiar with the law and may not realize how easily pranks or practical jokes can become criminal acts. The project is spearheaded by Dr. Avital Molad, of the Israel Public Defender's Office, and Tova Ben Ari of the Education Ministry's Pedagogical Administration.

At the end of the week high-school pupils will end the school year and start their two-month summer vacation. Katzir B's Esther Goldfeld comments: "Some parents think children at this age no longer need supervision. They go out at night and can get into trouble. The purpose of the lectures is to make them aware of the repercussions of their actions, but ultimately they are responsible for their behavior."

It is difficult to assess to what extent the lectures achieve their goal. Sources in the Education Ministry said yesterday that "the pupils' broad understanding and clear knowledge about what the law permits and forbids will contribute to reducing behaviors that could lead to the opening a criminal file."

Goldfeld says that "the lectures have an effect mainly on pupils who are on the edge of fitting in. In these cases they have a deterring effect."

A few minutes after Edelman finishes his lecture, eighth grader Tal Beno says, "I think the main message is to keep out of trouble. But if anyone tries to mess with us, that's another matter."

His friend, Ron Tzaidi, agrees. "Still, one can always walk away." He adds, It's better to keep out of trouble."