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Backlog makes swift justice difficult for juveniles

July 24, 1998|By CLYDE FORD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Prosecutors and defense attorneys say a backlog of juvenile cases is making it difficult for the courts to dispense the kind of swift justice that works best with youthful offenders.

Juvenile delinquents who are convicted for the most serious offenses are sent home for months until a bed becomes available for them at a rehabilitation facility, prosecutors said.

"If you were convicted and sentenced...you would not be able to be sent to that facility until Nov. 15 if you're a boy and not until after January if you are a girl," said Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Thompson.

Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely said it's especially important in juvenile cases for the offender to be punished immediately.

"Otherwise the message is lost on the kid," she said. "At that age, they've moved on to other things within a few months time."

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Defense attorney James T. Kratovil, who is handling about 60 juvenile cases, agrees.

"I believe children, when they find themselves in trouble, need immediate resolution. If you discipline a child a long time afterwards, it doesn't have the same impact," Kratovil said.

"If you do something wrong and you're immediately dealt with it has a greater impact than if it takes eight months to be dealt with," said William Bechtold, a probation officer with 49 active juvenile cases.

The West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services plans to ask the state legislature next year to give it more control over where it can place juvenile offenders to make the best use of available space at facilities.

The Eastern Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Martinsburg is intended to hold nine youths but averages about 15, Thompson said.

Bechtold and the prosecutors said that plan might not work because the judges, who sentence the offenders, often have a better idea on what the child needs in terms of rehabilitation.

Bechtold said part of his job is to make recommendations to the judges where juveniles should be placed.

"Corrections works differently than juvenile placements," Bechtold said. "In juvenile placements, they're looking to fix them."

Thompson said the solution is for the state to turn the Eastern Regional Jail into a juvenile detention facility once the new adult jail is completed.

Thompson said he doesn't expect that to happen because the state wants to rent the facility to the federal government to make money.

"Everyone wants justice but no one wants to pay for it. Justice for juvenile delinquents requires places to put them in," Thompson said.

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