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Teen court in the pipeline in Morgan County

September 02, 2008|By TRISH RUDDER

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - First-time young offenders who break the law in Morgan County will have an opportunity to pay for their crimes without getting a criminal record.

Morgan County hopes to be the first to offer the innovative Teen Court in the Eastern Panhandle.

Morgan County Probation Officers Sean Bryner and Danielle Robertson said they are working with the Morgan County Partnership to establish the program, and they hope it will be available in January, at the beginning of the second school semester.

Bryner said the volunteer program is for seventh- to 12th-graders who are delinquent behavior offenders of nonviolent crimes. It is a legally binding alternative system of justice, he said.

In Teen Court, the participants, including the prosecuting and defense attorneys, bailiff, court clerk and the jurors, are all teens. Adult mentors assist the teen attorneys, Robertson said.

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The judge is an acting or retired circuit court judge or an active member of the West Virginia bar, Robertson said, and the teen jury deliberates and reaches a verdict and determines the sentence.

The sentence includes mandatory community service and the offender must serve twice on the jury in Teen Court, Robertson said.

Twelve West Virginia counties have existing teen courts, Bryner said.

Greg Puckett is the executive director of Community Connections in Mercer County and the director of the West Virginia Teen Court Association.

Mercer County has had a teen court for the last six years, he said, and it is very successful.

"The youth are the ones that do all the work. The jury members have guidelines, but the jury can be creative," Puckett said.

Community service could be from 16 to 40 hours for the crime. An example could be cleaning up the bleachers after a ball game.

Puckett said parents have to pay for the kids' crimes. The expense is much less in teen court, at about $40. The parents must be involved, he said.

"It may make it possible to prevent juveniles from becoming adult felons," Robertson said. "We're hoping to change their behavior on the front end," she said.

"Early intervention is a good solution to keep these kids out of the system," Morgan County Commissioner Brenda J. Hutchinson said.

"Everybody wins," Bryner said.

Bryner said the county commission has agreed to help pay for the program by adding a $5 fee to traffic violations. Parking violations are exempt, Bryner said.

The Bath Town Council is in favor of the program and wants to participate. The council will vote on it this month, Mayor Susan J. Webster said.

"There is no money at the taxpayers' expense," Robertson said.

The probation officers and the program coordinator decide the candidates for the program. "The offender has to agree to participate and must admit to the crime," she said.

"By the juvenile offenders accepting responsibility for their behavior, they are playing a role in determining their fate," Robertson said.

The Morgan County Partnership enforcement task force is interviewing people for the coordinator position, and a decision will be made within 60 days, Bryner said.

The coordinator will be trained by the association, and the adult vounteer assistants and the teens will be trained by the coordinator.

The West Virginia Teen Court Association has earmarked a $1,000 stipend for the program expenses, Robertson said.

"This court will help a special group of young folks," she said. "Not only the offenders, it helps all the participants to understand the court system."

"It gives them an opportunity to explore a possible career they may not even have thought about," she said.

"By utilizing this type of program and coupled with traditional teaching methods, all youth have an opportunity to extend their learning experiences.

"We're all excited about this," Robertson said.

"It's better to deal with it at this end than the other that costs us a whole lot more," Commission President Glen R. Stotler said.

Morgan County Prosecutor Debra MH McLaughlin is also an advocate of Teen Court. "I've talked about it for years. I think it will help to educate kids about the criminal justice system in a way the juvenile system does not."

"By having this court program available, it is an addition to the services currently offered and does not take anything away," Puckett said.

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