CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Teen Court heard its first case Monday, sentencing a juvenile who had committed a shoplifting first offense to 18 hours of community service.
“It appeared to just be a lapse in judgment,” said Kirk Bottner, a Charles Town lawyer. “There wasn’t much evidence that he would continue making silly mistakes.”
The Teen Court system allows juveniles charged with petty property crimes to be tried by their peers before a bar-certified lawyer like Bottner, who served as the judge. The prosecution, defense and jury are all composed of fellow teens.
Teen defendants can be sentenced to various amounts of community service, and to make reparations to the individuals who were harmed by their actions, or to the community. Once they have completed their community service and reparations, they are then obligated to serve on the Teen Court jury between two and six times.
Erin Jackson, a Wildwood Middle School student, served as the head juror during the trial. “We learned a lot of new things, and I have a whole new respect for the system of law here,” she said.
Fellow Wildwood student Tyler Shaffer served as the prosecuting attorney.
“It was a good experience,” Shaffer said. “I came into the program because that is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a lawyer. This was the perfect opportunity for me to learn how to be a lawyer.”
“My family says I’m a heck of a good arguer,” he said.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Hassan Rasheed said the experience was a good exercise for the young people.
“You have kids come in from the community, and they get to see what it is like to be a prosecutor and prepare a case,” Rasheed said. “If a juvenile commits a criminal offense, then an officer sends a petition to our office, and we look at it and determine whether it qualifies for Teen Court.”
Neither violent offenders or offenders with prior records are eligible for the program.
“Before the year is out, we could wind up doing 40 or 50 of these,” he said.
Development Coordinator Stacie Rohn said the Teen Court system offers a number of advantages that aren’t always available in the traditional juvenile court system.
“In a punitive scenario, there is an element of shame that it is a little harder to recover from,” Rohn says. “Here, we say, ‘Yes, it happened. But here is a way you can make up for it and maybe move ahead in a positive direction.’”
“The kids who are being referred through this program are usually remorseful,” she said.
Sentences in Teen Court range from 16 to 40 hours of community service, in addition to reparations.
Rohn says that Monagalia County’s Teen Court program, which was the first in the state, has demonstrated that the alternative approach to trial and sentencing can substantially reduce the number of second offenses among juvenile offenders. Last year, she said, they handled 50 cases and had only four incidents of recidivism – two of which were for tobacco-related offenses.
“They only get one chance,” she added. “So, if something happens again, they won’t get referred a second time.”
Once defendants have completed their community serve work and reparations, the record of their offense is expunged, Rohn says.
“It is a good chance for kids that mess up and get themselves in trouble to avoid a permanent record,” said Bottner.
Rohn says the program also offers unique educational opportunities for the participants who act as lawyers and jurors.
“It helps young people develop speaking skills. It helps them develop critical thinking skills,” she said. “If they want to be a lawyer, this will be the only chance they get to argue a case until their third year of law school.”
Rohn also emphasized that the program is not paid for with tax dollars. Instead, a $5 additional surcharge has been added to speeding and traffic tickets to pay for the program.