by Kate Evans
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part article on Morgan County’s Teen Court program
Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney Dan James said that cases he considers for Morgan County Teen Court are non-violent, first time offenders. Cases can include underage use of tobacco, possession of marijuana, underage possession of alcohol and vape cases.
More serious crimes and crimes of violence go directly to Circuit Court, he said. Schools are seeing a lot of vaping cases now.
If families go through Teen Court, they don’t have to pay court costs, James said. If teens don’t comply with their sentence, their case goes back to Magistrate Court or Circuit Court where court costs may be around $200.
James previously was the elected prosecutor in Hampshire County, and helped set up the Teen Court there. He was also previously the Morgan County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney. James said he never sees around 90% of the defendants from Teen Court in the court system again.
James believes that many kids go through Teen Court and learn from it. James has had a few kids come up to him in person and thank him for letting them be in Teen Court. One mother also called to thank him, too.
James said they have a great Teen Court judge — Joseph Kinser — and that Teen Court Coordinator Scott Daines is fantastic with the kids.
Teen Court has quite a few benefits, James said. High school and middle school kids serve on the Teen Court team and students learn about the judicial process. Defendants have to accept responsibility for what they’ve done and are required to serve on the jury.
“It’s a great program. It’s a good experience all around and a great resource to the community,” James said.
Teen Court judge
Joseph Kisner, Berkeley County Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, has been a volunteer judge for Morgan County Teen Court for nearly 10 years.
“I really enjoy it. I love it,” Kisner said.
Kisner said he was originally assigned as a public defender to Morgan County. He met Charlie Willard, former Morgan County Teen Court Coordinator, who asked him to be part of a rotation of lawyers that served as Teen Court judges. Soon Kisner became the only Morgan County Teen Court judge and he has been doing it ever since.
His favorite part of Teen Court is that kids as young as middle school can start in the club and get to high school and take a bigger role. He loves how in Morgan County Teen Court has teen volunteers involved that have never been in trouble a day in their life alongside defendants who have to serve as jurors for at least two Teen Court hearings.
As the jury deliberates adequate punishment for Teen Court offenses, “you have this really diverse group of kids determining what’s just and right. It brings a great perspective that’s really representative of how real juries work,” Kisner said.
They had a former Teen Court member graduate from law school.
“You are so proud of them,” Kisner said.
Kinser said there has been an incredible uptick in teen vaping cases. When Teen Court started, there were a lot of tobacco cases. At least 50% of the cases now are vaping cases.
Morgan County is developing a vape school that teaches students about the harmfulness of vaping that’s part of their Teen Court sentence. They may also have to write an essay about the harms of vaping.
Kinser thinks that Teen Court has helped many teens stay out of trouble.
“Some will realize I’ve got to change. Others won’t. It’s certainly a great opportunity,” Kinser said of Teen Court.
Kinser said he’s been particularly impressed by Teen Court juries perceptiveness and being able to hear difficult cases and reach verdicts.
Teen Court provides a benefit to all members and defendants. Kisner said he’s proud to be a part of it and is glad it continues. Kids are participating in government, which he thinks is great.
Teen Court students
Current Teen Court student volunteers shared what they have enjoyed and learned from Teen Court. All have served as prosecuting attorney, defense attorney and jurors. Three served as court clerks. All but one attend Berkeley Springs High School and one is from Paw Paw High School. All were recruited by Teen Court Coordinator Scott Daines at a Youth Leadership Academy held earlier this year.
Berkeley Springs High School senior Audrey Helmick said they’ve learned how the court system works hands-on. She noted that a lot of them were taking Advanced Placement (AP) Government last year or this year or were taking Civics. What they’ve learned from Teen Court really ties in.
Senior Clara Payne said it feels like they have a part in decisions. When you see consequences given to others, you want to see other’s sentences be fair. She likes serving as prosecuting attorney and is interested in pursuing a legal career.
“I would tell people to try Teen Court. It could be a career that interests you,” Payne said.
Senior Lilly Morgan said that she enjoys helping people get on the right track and make good decisions.
Teen Court has been an eye-opener about how small decisions can affect your life. It draws to people’s attention how easily they can get into trouble, said senior Miyah Saville. She’s going to pursue study in crime scene forensics.
Junior Hunter Hook said when he first signed up for Teen Court, he thought it would look good on his resume for college. He found he really enjoys Teen Court.
Senior Azrai Wiltshire noted how they had to analyze evidence to make good decisions.
Junior Caelyn Bartley said they help people make better social and emotional choices and be a better part of the community. Teen Court also helps overcome a fear of public speaking.
Payne said Teen Court is fun-it’s not all business all the time. They enjoy each other’s company and socializing with like-minded people.
Berkeley Springs High School Junior Joseph Warren spoke by telephone. He has been Teen Court defense attorney, prosecuting attorney and a juror.
Warren said Teen Court has been really beneficial and a good public speaking experience talking in front of the jury and the judge. It’s a good chance to see friends and it’s a really good opportunity if you wanted to go to law school.
Warren is attending James Rumsey Technical Institute for aerospace engineering and said he’s had good opportunities to speak in front of large groups there because of his Teen Court experience.
Grace Deschenes is a tenth grader at Paw Paw High School who has served as defense attorney, prosecuting attorney, juror and clerk. In a phone interview, Deschenes said she likes that Teen Court gives kids a chance to rethink their actions without it going on their record. It gives kids in trouble a second chance to understand what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
From Teen Court Deschenes said that she’s learned how to work with people and do public speaking and question people. She’s also learned how to work as a team and be a leader. Deschenes enjoys Teen Court and is starting to consider a legal career.
“It’s a great program. Anyone thinking of joining, should,” she said.