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Jefferson Co. Commissioners impressed with Teen Court proposal

All-volunteer program for offenders and for youths who serve on its juries, as prosecutors and as defense attorneys

February 24, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Teen Court, a legally binding justice system in which volunteer youth jurors try their peers in a real courtroom, has been a success in Morgan County.

On Thursday, the Jefferson County Commissioners heard a presentation on the program that keeps first-time offenders between the ages of 11 and 18 charged with minor crimes out of juvenile court.

The commissioners warmed to the idea. Their only responsibility to the program — and that of the five Jefferson County municipalities with police departments — is to charge a $5 fee on all traffic and more-serious violations that come through county or municipal courts.

The fees will fund Jefferson County's Teen Court program, estimated to cost about $60,000 a year, said Teresa Warnick, program director of Family Resource Network of the Panhandle Inc., the sponsor of the Teen Court organizing effort.

The network, founded in the early 1990s, serves as a clearinghouse of information on child and family services.

Teen Court is an all-volunteer program for the offenders and for the youths who serve on its juries, as prosecutors and as defense attorneys, Warnick said.

Teen volunteers are trained by judicial professionals.

The trials are held in actual courtrooms and presided over by a lawyer, also a volunteer, who has been cleared to try the cases.

Judge John Yoder who handles most juvenile cases in the Panhandle's 23rd Judicial Circuit, supports the program, Warnick said. He could not be reached Thursday night.

Charlie Willard, who coordinates Morgan County's Teen Court, said in an interview Thursday that there have been 23 hearings since it began in December 2009.

Typical cases include underage drinking and smoking, minor shoplifting, fighting in school, trespassing, petit larceny and battery, Willard said.

Willard said it took nine months to set up Morgan County's program. Warnick said she hopes Jefferson County's will open by July 1.

Sarah Gabriele, a West Virginia University master's degree student, is serving an internship with the Jefferson County organization effort. She said teen juries are harder on defendants than regular courts.

Penalties are mandatory community service, with juries determining the number of hours to be served, Willard said. Sometimes offenders are sentenced to write lengthy essays on what they've learned.

Only one of the 23 Morgan County cases involved an offender who returned to juvenile court on a subsequent charge, Willard said.

Warnick said most Teen Court cases would rarely appear in juvenile court because police are reluctant to investigate such minor crimes. Hence, the offender goes unpunished, she said.

Parents support the program, she said.

Gabriele said Teen Courts cut costs by unclogging the traditional juvenile court system, interrupt a developing pattern of inappropriate behavior, reinforce self-esteem and promote a healthy attitude toward authority.

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