By Matthew Young, RealWV
“Every kid does stupid things, but they don’t need to be hammered for every stupid thing they do. They need to be held accountable, but not defeated.”
That’s how Director Aaron Evans explained the motivation behind Nicholas County’s Teen Court program, adding, “I don’t want them to be defeated and have no hope.”
As explained on wvteencourt.org, “Teen Court is a unique ‘second chance’ justice program for youth between the ages of 11 and 18 who are alleged to have committed a status offense or an act of delinquency which would be a misdemeanor if committed by an adult. Upon successful completion of the program charges against the defendant are dismissed.”
Students in grades seven through 12 may volunteer to serve as jurors, court clerks, bailiffs, prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys. Students serving as attorneys have the opportunity to work with an adult attorney-mentor to prepare their case. The program currently operates in 17 counties throughout West Virginia, including: Berkeley, Brooke, Fayette, Hancock, Harrison, Jefferson, Marion, Mason, Mercer, Mingo, Monongalia, Morgan, Raleigh, Summers, Wyoming, and Nicholas.
“The idea of Teen Court has been around for several years now in West Virginia,” Evans said. “But, like anything else, it’s been slow to take off.”
Evans explained how the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 derailed Nicholas County’s previous attempts to get their Teen Court program off the ground. However, under Evans’ leadership, the program has facilitated nearly 60 juvenile cases.
“We’ve probably helped over 30 kids just this year,” Evans added.
According to Evans, Teen Court acts as a deferment-option for juvenile offenders who would typically be tried and punished through the traditional magistrate court system. Without such a deferment, oftentimes juveniles are left with a lifelong criminal record.
“If a kid, in times past, would get in trouble for smoking a cigarette at school – or, in this day-and-age, vaping – they would get a citation from a police officer,” Evans said. “Somebody would have to be liable for that fine. Most of the time it’s not the teenager who is paying that fine – it’s usually the parents.”
“The deferment program, instead of the kid going through magistrate court and paying a fine, they go through teen court and face a jury of their peers,” Evans continued. “Instead of a fine, there will be community service. There will be essays or research papers. There will be different classes, different counseling sessions that they’d have to take along with a few other things to help them learn to be accountable.”
“This is all to try and help the kid, instead of simply trying to punish them,” Evans concluded.
After a lifetime spent in law enforcement, including 10-years with the Nicholas County Sheriff’s Department and his current role as the county’s Juvenile Probation Officer, Evans knows full-well the importance of early intervention in the life of an offender. Such early intervention becomes even more critical in light of the ongoing opioid crisis and other concerns surrounding substance-misuse.
To reinforce this point, Evans shared the story of an 18-year-old female recently cited for driving without a license, and charged with marijuana possession, saying, “She was given the chance to go through teen court.”
If processed through the county magistrate court, both offenses would typically result in fines in excess of $1,000, and jail sentences of up to six months.
“The State law says that juveniles must still be in school to be eligible for teen court,” Evans noted. “So this 18-year-old female was charged with a drug crime. She went through teen court and now has a clear criminal record.”
Penalties imposed through teen court vary in severity depending upon the infraction. However, each sentence includes between 16 and 40 hours of community service. Teen court participants must also attend school regularly while demonstrating progress in all classes, and serve as a peer-juror for a minimum of two future teen court cases.
“One case we had the max,” Evans noted. “40 hours of community service. They had to write an apology letter to their parents, the sheriff’s department, and their school. They had to take a drug-cessation class, an impulse-control class, and a victim-awareness class. They had to pay restitution for property damage. They had to write a personal ‘code of ethics.’”
“And also, one of my favorites, they had to write a 1,000 word research paper on the dangers of alcohol use,” Evans added. “That’s a lot more than you’re going to get going through magistrate court and paying a fine.”
Although infrequent, according to Evans, juveniles who fail to abide by the terms set forth by teen court have their cases referred back to the Nicholas County Magistrate Court.
“Unfortunately I’ve had to do that a few times,” Evans added. “Not a lot, not very often. But I have had to do that.”
Kathleen Murphy, Nicholas County’s chief public defender, serves as the county teen court program’s primary judge. Although, other area-attorneys will perform those duties in the event that Murphy is unavailable. While the program does employ one paid coordinator, everyone else involved – including Evans and Murphy – are volunteers.
In addition to teen court, Evans is seeking legislative-guidance to assist with juvenile drug-rehabilitation, saying, “The opioid crisis is not just impacting the adults in our state. There is a growing number of juveniles who are also facing personal addiction.”
“Right now, the teen court program gives kids a second chance to do the right thing,” Evans concluded. “Not every kid deserves a big fine. And sometimes the fines can be detrimental to a family. Sometimes it’s that second chance – and just knowing that there are people in their community who believe in them and support them – that can really make all the difference in a kid’s life.”