Teen court makes a difference as an option for young offenders
Teen Court has been a successful alternative for juvenile offenders that have gotten in trouble with the law. The program offers youth a hearing and sentencing by their peers.
The Teen Court program is set up to be a second chance, said Charlie Willard, Teen Court coordinator and Morgan County Partnership staff. If the offenders complete all provisions of their sentence, all charges are dropped and their record remains clean.
Prosecuting Attorney Debra McLaughlin decides whether the case for a youth charged with a misdemeanor or status offense goes to the Circuit Court judge or to Teen Court, he said. If the case is deemed Teen Court appropriate, Probation Officer Sean Bryner next reviews the case.
In underage tobacco cases, the case normally goes directly to Magistrate Court. The school principal or Prevention Resource Officer (PRO) Deputy Kevin Barney can also refer these cases to Teen Court, Willard said.
Underage tobacco use, underage alcohol consumption, battery and petit larceny comprise most of the cases they’ve handled. The highest number of Teen Court cases has involved underage tobacco use, he said.
Willard said they hope to expand the types of cases Teen Court can handle to possibly school battery cases and some select truancy cases.
A second chance
The Teen Court program began in January, 2009. The first year they were establishing the program and recruiting kids and attorneys to serve, Willard said. In two and a half years of operation, they’ve handled 49 cases. They currently have 14 kids in seventh through 12th grade that are receiving attorney training.
In Teen Court, everyone is a teenager except for a licensed volunteer attorney who serves as judge, a volunteer bailiff and Willard. Teens serve as jurors, attorneys and clerks. The licensed attorneys train kids on court procedure. The bailiff explains courthouse etiquette and behavior.
How it works
Once Willard gets the referral, he meets with the juvenile and their parents. The teen signs a written agreement beforehand that they will cooperate and will accept the sentence that the teen jury hands down.
Willard then assigns a teen defense attorney to the client. They meet and develop a strategy for the case, which is presented at the hearing. The jury gives the defendant their consequences. If they don’t comply, their case gets bounced back into the regular court system.
Most kids complete the sentence requirements. They’ve only had two or three cases that were non-compliant that got sent back to the prosecuting attorney.
The teen jury decides the defendant’s sentence after hearing the evidence. Attorneys argue for various sentences for the client.
The jury has to come up with a unanimous verdict, Willard said. Defendants will receive between 16 to 40 hours of mandatory community service and be required to serve as a Teen Court juror a certain number of times.
A written essay related to their offense is often assigned. Written apologies to the victim and restitution may also be consequences. Teen Court is more of a sentencing hearing than a trial, he said.
They are dealing with low risk kids that could go either direction. Their goal is early prevention and helping teens to understand that there are consequences that go with making bad choices, Willard said.
Willard said that around 40% of the kids that come through the Teen Court program remain in the program to do jury duty when they don’t have to. One defendant became a Teen Court attorney.
The teen attorneys do a great job of trying to argue their side, said Morgan County Partnership education program facilitator Nikki Cowles. She began sharing Teen Court duties with Willard as co-coordinator in July. Cowles arranges the community service part of the program.
Some community service work that teens have been required to do are janitorial duties at the high school, clean-up after football games, helping with Meals on Wheels at the Paw Paw Senior Center and assisting at the recycling center.
They are looking to expand the community service portion of the program, Cowles said. If any non-profit agencies want to participate, they should call her at 304-258-7807.
They’re not bad kids, Willard said. They’ve just made bad choices, Cowles noted.
Makes a difference
Willard thinks it makes a difference that their punishment is coming from their peers. Teens’ peers are telling them that they made unacceptable choices, he said.
Kids also get an overall firsthand view of how the court system operates, which is great, Cowles said.
The Teen Court program is funded by the Juvenile Accountability Block Grant and $5.00 court fees that are added onto Morgan County citations. The Town of Bath and the Town of Paw Paw also add the court fees.