A Look at Jefferson County Teen Court – A Restorative Justice Program
n the 1990’s, the United States began reforming the juvenile justice system. Over time, juvenile incarceration rates dropped dramatically across the states, except for the state of West Virginia where 42% more juveniles were incarcerated. The reason for this type of program stems from the opportunity to prevent unnecessary infractions and incarceration of troubled youth..
Enabling legislation was written in the 90’s for West Virginia to provide for Teen Courts across the state. Since that time there have been many attempts in counties to start the programs, however, not all have been successful. There are roughly a dozen active Teen Court programs in West Virginia at the present time. Luckily, Jefferson County has one of those programs.
Teen Courts in West Virginia are funded through a $5 fee on each traffic ticket given in the county of origin, after agreements are reached with local law enforcement and jurisdictional officials. The Jefferson County Teen Court program has been developed by the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle and community leaders to address to create better opportunities for Jefferson County youth. Starting in 2011, the United Way began offering staff support, training and seed funding for the program.
The court has an advisory board comprised of community members from law enforcement, Jefferson County Commission, Jefferson County Schools, county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Circuit Clerk, and community members well versed in juvenile issues.
In 2015 Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed Senate Bill 393 which provides reform to the juvenile justice system in our state. The $4.5 million dollar initiative places truancy diversion specialists in all 55 counties to provide early intervention services to those children who need them most. The bill also introduces a two-step diversion process that expands community-based alternatives prior to the filing of a juvenile petition for a status offense or misdemeanor. The bill expands youth reporting centers across the state to provide programs to teens at home instead of placing them in juvenile detention centers. Evidence-based services and pilot programs to support restorative justice programs will also be introduced throughout our state that include substance abuse recovery services, mental health programs and family therapies.
Teen Court should not be confused with Juvenile Drug Court. Teen Court is run by volunteers. A Teen Court must have a judge that is a licensed attorney with the West Virginia Bar Association. The jury, clerk, and attorneys are all teens volunteering in the program and have been accordingly. Sentencing or consequences for offenses are determined by peer volunteers.
Teen Court sees juveniles when they receive a first time infraction. Offenses commonly processed in teen court include: property damage, shoplifting, disruption of schools, possession of tobacco and possession of alcohol. To date, the majority of Teen Court defendants have been 12-14 years of age. Trials are held for each case to determine the consequences of the teen’s actions. Each defendant will serve a minimum of 16 hours of community service, and serve as a juror for at least two court sessions. The majority of Teen Court client’s to date have received much harsher sentences than the minimum. Jurors can assign other consequences to defendants including essays, apology letters, repair of property damage, and restitution. Surprisingly, Teen Court jurors tend to be harder on their peers than the juvenile justice system. If a defendant does not complete his/her sentence the case is referred back to the Prosecuting Attorney’s office. For this reason, Teen Court does not decide innocence or guilt as testimony or evidence would be admissible in the Prosecutor’s case.
Jefferson County current community service outlets include the Middleway Volunteer Fire Department, the Animal Welfare Society, the Jefferson Center, and the Jefferson County Solid Waste Authority. In some cases the court has had defendants return to provide additional volunteer hours after sentences were served resulting in better results.
Defendants are also injected into a positive peer group as they participate on the Teen Court. Many of the volunteer attorneys are students interested in careers in law enforcement or the judicial system. These students are already active in the community and positive role models for younger teens coming in to the program. After sentences are completed defendants become volunteers and can also serve as attorneys on the court.
At present, the program is working to have more of the volunteers involved in youth development programs in addition to Teen Court. Teen attorneys will be offered an opportunity to intern with local attorneys. Officials are also working on a program that would allow the same volunteers to shadow Assistant Prosecutor Charles Howard of the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Former defendants will be offered opportunities to work with the Boys & Girls Club of the Eastern Panhandle over the summer.