Federal judge speaks to students in new Criminal Justice pathway

U.S. District Court Judge Mark G. Mastroianni speaks to freshmen at Westfield High School. (Photo by Amy Porter)

WESTFIELD – On Jan. 24, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Mastroianni spoke to Westfield High School freshmen who are pursuing the new Criminal Justice pathway under Instructor Jack Vanasse.
The students have completed the first semester in a criminal justice exploratory program and have committed to continuing on in the program. WHS is seeking to become a Chapter 74 certified pathway in the school.
“We’re pretty excited to have Judge Mastroianni here. Criminal Justice is off to a very good start,” said WHS Principal Charles Jendrysik. He said that Vanasse has made a number of contacts and connections in the community who are helping them to bring a well-rounded view of criminal justice.
Before coming to WHS, Vanasse served in the state house as deputy director of safety and security. He has his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Criminal Justice and has served in federal, state and local law enforcement. He previously taught at Putnam Vocational High School in Springfield.
Vanasse said Mastroianni is on the advisory committee helping to steer the program and inform them about opportunities in the field.
Mastroianni introduced himself to the class, saying he was appointed as a U.S. District Court judge in 2014 by President Barack Obama. Prior to being judge, he served as assistant district attorney, and then district attorney in Springfield for three years. He has also served as a prosecutor and defense attorney.
Mastroianni said he graduated from American International College and received his Law degree from Western New England College of Law. He said even with his background, he wasn’t interested in criminal justice until after college.
“It’s interesting that you’re starting to think about CJ at this point in your life,” Mastroianni said to the class.
Mastroianni then spoke about being a judge and how he sets bail, alternatives to cash bonds, minimum mandatory sentencing, and the most interesting or difficult case he was ever involved in.
He spoke about his first murder case as a young prosecutor, when he was assigned to work with police and investigate a young man who had gone missing.
He said it turned out the young man had been killed by another young man who was a rival for his girlfriend. A friend of the rival who had helped to hide the body showed him the approximate area where it had been hidden. He said he still remembers the sight and smell when they found the missing man.
They had to identify him through dental records, which was the judge’s first involvement with forensics in the days before DNA. They also had to do forensic work on tire tracks, blood spills and blood patterns in the car.
“I became very involved with all the latest in forensics and forensic technique. Not long after, DNA came out. I stayed involved and interested in forensics,” Mastroianni said.
He said it was his most interesting case because he found the body and prosecuted the case to a guilty verdict. He also said it was very sad; two young men from nice families, one dead, one in prison for life.
Mastroianni said he has been involved in many cases involving forensics. He said for the most part, forensics done in the court is paid for by the state to prosecute a case. A defendant has to pay for his own forensics experts, unless he is unable to pay.
Mastroianni also talked about plea bargains and minimum mandatory sentencing, which he said some people want to eliminate, and about criminal justice reform that looks at why the system is harsher on people with lower economic status.
“Why if you look at the people incarcerated, is there a higher number of black and Hispanic than white? It often comes down to economic status. It’s a bigger question for our society. Why is that? We’re in the middle of examining that right now,” Mastroianni said.
“I’m very happy that criminal justice reform has happened in my lifetime,” he added.

Judge Mark G. Mastroianni speaks to WHS freshmen in the new Criminal Justice pathway. (Photo by Amy Porter)

Vanasse said when the class visited the Westfield District Court, a judge yelled at a defendant for wearing a hoodie, which made an impression on the students.
“The court system, not me, needs to be respected. That is why they stand for a judge; to show respect for a judicial system designed to be the ultimate in fairness,” Mastroianni said, adding, “I stand when the jury enters and leaves the room out of respect for the jury.”
After the class, Mastroianni said he was thrilled to be asked to serve on the Criminal Justice advisory committee at WHS.
“I’m invested in Westfield Public Schools — my three daughters went through school here. I think this is very innovative, and I’m happy to be involved,” he said.
Regarding criminal justice reform, he said, “So many things have changed just in the last 10 years, and it is a topic of current interest.”
“If high school students can be talking about it at this age, it’s a very important thing,” he added.
Social Studies Supervisor Jason Taylor said that the new criminal justice program has two classes, with a total of 27 students who are continuing after the first semester. Next year, the school will offer criminal justice 10 to sophomores, with two courses a day. Over the four years of high school, students must complete 900 hours in the program for Chapter 74 certification.
Taylor said the school is in talks with the Westfield Police Department to create an internship program that could possibly feed into Westfield Cadets. They are also working on an articulation agreement with Springfield Technical Community College and Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield for college credits for the program.
“The criminal justice program is creating opportunities for career paths, strengthening the partnership between the community and law enforcement, and creating better citizens,” Taylor said.
Vanasse said in the first semester, the class visited the Springfield Police Department Criminal Enforcement unit, where students learned that they can be in law enforcement in front of a computer analyzing crime trends from live video feeds, which he said they were pretty excited about.
Future plans include hosting mock trials where students take the roles of prosecutor and defense, and Vanasse will serve as judge. He also hopes to take the class to visit Mastroianni in the U.S. District Court in Springfield.
He said a lot of eighth graders have expressed in interest in the program, and he plans to go to Westfield Middle School to speak to them in the near future.
“Once we become a Chapter 74 (program), it will open up a lot more community opportunities. We will be in a strong position,” Vanasse said.
“The law enforcement field is in high demand. That is the reason we started this, because the demand is increasing,” Taylor said.

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