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Editorial: Merits of Teen Court concept make program worth salvaging

Oct. 24, 2012 @ 11:55 PM

Officials overseeing the Cabell County Teen Court are stepping back and exploring other options to revive the program, which got off to a rocky start in its first year. We hope they find a way because the concept behind the program makes it a worthy option for teens who run into trouble and a valuable civics class for other participating teens.

The Teen Court was launched a little less than a year ago, after organizers successfully persuaded the Huntington City Council and Cabell County Commission to authorize the attachment of $5 fee to traffic citations issued by the Huntington Police and Cabell County Sheriff's departments. That money was used to pay for program expenses, including a program coordinator.

The court consisted of an adult judge working with teen volunteers serve as prosecutor, defense attorney and jury. The court considered cases involving teens accused of minor violations, such as indecent exposure, destruction of property, disruption of school process, shoplifting, disorderly conduct, joy riding, trespassing and alcohol-related offenses. If a teen is convicted, teen jurors handed down punishments, which could include community service, restitution and letters of apology.

For young offenders, it was an alternative -- not a mandatory one -- to going through normal juvenile court procedures. The hope was that exposure to this youth-laden court system would serve as a deterrent to future problems. And, through youth participation as court officials and jurors, more students were exposed to the workings of the criminal justice system.

But the program has been hampered by difficulties finding and retaining a qualified coordinator who could be sufficiently involved to offer the program to enough teen offenders. Finding a replacement for the original coordinator, who left the position for a better-paying job, has been hard to do, members of the Teen Court Advisory Board said.

So the program is now suspended. The advisory board has asked both Huntington City Council and Cabell County Commission to stop collection of the traffic citation fees, at least until a solution is found.

Among the options being considered is having Cabell County Schools become more involved in administering the program, perhaps similar to what is done in Braxton County. Braxton's teen court is run through the school, with most of the teen violators referred to the program by school principals. Officials there are pleased with the program, which also involves a mentoring component for offenders. But that setup may have the drawback of less court involvement, and therefore less incentive for teens to agree to participate.

Cabell County Schools already is considering paying for a probation officer to work on truancy cases, and perhaps coordinating the teen court could be wrapped into that position if it materializes.

In any case, we encourage officials to come up with an alternative that will bring back this program. It serves a valuable purpose and shouldn't be allowed to slip to the wayside.

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