by Kate Evans
Morgan County Teen Court has continued to be a successful alternative for juvenile offenders who have gotten in trouble with the law. The program began in January of 2009 and offers youth a hearing and sentencing by their peers.
Teen Court gives young offenders a second chance. Scott Daines, new Teen Court Coordinator and Morgan County Partnership staff person, said that if offenders complete all provisions of their sentence, all charges are dropped and their record remains clean.
Daines began his position as Teen Court Coordinator in January. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and practiced labor law litigation at Verner, Liipfert law firm in Washington, DC. Daines said most of his cases involved airline labor law.
Daines replaces Charlie Willard, who led Teen Court for many years.
So far this year, 16 cases have come through Teen Court. Daines expects they’ll have between 20-30 cases by the end of the year.
The majority of cases right now are vaping cases. Others have included underage drinking, underage tobacco use, fights at the high school and middle school, trespassing and possession of marijuana. Not all cases are school-related cases, Daines said.
Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney Dan James decides whether juvenile cases go to the Circuit Court judge or to Teen Court, Daines said.
If it’s a school case, Prevention Resource Officer Paul McFarland investigates, writes up the charges and sends the case to James. Sometimes the cases come directly from the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department to James.
If the case is considered appropriate for Teen Court, Probation Officer Sean Bryner reviews the case next. Many Teen Court cases have involved underage tobacco use.
Teen Court is held in the Circuit Court courtroom on the third floor of the Morgan County Courthouse.
Daines recruited a lot of Teen Court volunteers from the Youth Leadership Academy held at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College early this year. Students from Berkeley Springs High School and Paw Paw High School serve as Teen Court prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, clerks and jurors.
In Teen Court, everyone is a teenager except Joseph Kinser, Berkeley County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, who serves as a volunteer judge, volunteer bailiff Hal Heagy, bailiff for Morgan County Circuit Court, and Daines. The licensed attorneys train kids on court procedure. The bailiff explains courthouse etiquette and behavior.
Teens who serve as attorneys are taught how to make opening and closing statements, interview witnesses and do cross examinations and courtroom presentations.
Teens who serve on the jury learn about the Teen Court program and different sentencing options. During Teen Court Club meetings they often have a guest speaker that provides training about the justice system.
How it works
Once Daines gets the referred case, he meets with the juvenile and their parents. The teen and parent sign a written agreement beforehand that they will cooperate with Teen Court and will accept the sentence that the teen jury hands down.
A teen defense attorney is assigned to the defendant. The teen defense and prosecuting attorneys present their case at the Teen Court hearing. Evidence is considered. The defendant usually testifies and is cross-examined. They are under oath to tell the truth, Daines said.
The jury adjourns to the jury room to discuss the consequences and consider their verdict. The jury then gives their verdict, which must be unanimous, along with the defendant’s sentence and its requirements.
Defendants receive between 16 to 40 hours of mandatory community service and are required to serve as a Teen Court juror at least twice, Daines said.
Defendants may also have to write an essay related to their offense. Written apologies to the victim and financial restitution may be required, especially if there’s vandalism involved.
Daines said that community service work for Teen Court defendants has included refiling books and cleaning at the Morgan County Public Library, helping with the Morgan County Homeless Coalition’s Hope House shelter renovations, landscaping for the Morgan County Parks and Recreation and working with dogs at the Morgan County Humane Society.
If the defendant doesn’t comply with their sentencing requirements, their case gets bounced back into the regular court system. Most kids complete the sentence requirements, he said. Some teen defendants continue serving in Teen Court as jurors because they like it, Daines noted.
There are no court costs involved for families that choose to go through Teen Court. Court fees in the amount of $5 are added onto Morgan County, Town of Bath and Town of Paw Paw citations to help fund the Teen Court program.
Teen Court’s mission is to help juvenile offenders assume responsibility for their behavior, to hold them accountable for their actions and to teach them to make better future decisions.
Teen Court is staffed by teens that are peers of the defendant, Daines said. Teens are telling teen defendants that they’ve made unacceptable choices.
Daines is enjoying working with Teen Court and feels he’s making a positive contribution. With Teen Court, kids learn about the justice system and legal system. They’re trying to get defendants to change their behavior and the trajectory of their lives, Daines said. Daines loves working with kids and is also a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer.
The fact that some defendants are enjoying Teen Court and continuing to be jurors is a very positive sign, he said. They’re getting involved with student leaders and making new friends. It’s having a positive effect.
Next week: Student volunteers, officials weigh in on Teen Court benefits