Spring Valley High School student Carissa Mullins speaks as Youth Advisory members of the Cebell County Teen Court gather for a press conference at the Barnett Center in Huntington on May 19. (Photo by Mark Webb/The Herald-Dispatch)
By LACIE PIERSON
HUNTINGTON -- When defendants walk into Cabell County Teen Court, they shouldn't expect a walk down easy street, said Tim White, chairman of the teen court committee.
The court, which is made up of 11- to 17-year-old Cabell County students, has everything one would expect from a courtroom including a prosecutor, defense attorney, bailiff and a jury all of whom are volunteers. Local judges and lawyers preside over the proceedings to ensure everything is according to law.
The program began six months ago, and students meet weekly to determine the fates of peers who have made bad decisions.
"It plays two roles. One is to help young people understand the judicial process. Unfortunately, most kids don't know about it until they appear in court," White said. "It also gives communities an opportunity to hold young people accountable for negative choices they make like shoplifting, vandalism or using tobacco."
The students work closely in their training with local community leaders, attorneys and law enforcement. White said all of the defendants in the court are first-time offenders, and the jury of their peers typically doles out rulings that require guilty parties to pay restitution to their victims and complete community service. Once that has been completed, the "convicted" student must serve on the Teen Court jury at least two times before their sentence has been served.
"This is something that allows them to be part of the solution and hold their peers accountable. Sometimes they're more critical than adults would be," White said. "They understand the decisions they make can affect their peers and vice versa. In this court, they don't let them get away with bad choices."
The court is funded through a $5 fee that is included with every citation, excluding traffic tickets. Citations issued by the City of Huntington and Cabell County officials include this fee, and White said he is lobbying with Milton and Barboursville officials to do the same.
Nationwide, the teen court system has an 85 percent success rate in preventing repeat offenders, which White said is a very important step in preventing future crime.
"A lot of times school officials and law enforcement get frustrated when it comes to juvenile crimes. This court allows the young people to see the severity of their actions. That way they don't re-offend, and teen court doesn't go on your record," White said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time if you have a person that is committing minor crimes at age 11, and they aren't held accountable, those crimes will get worse when they're 22 and even more serious when they're 32."
Recently, the teen court participants teamed up with Trifecta Productions and the media class at Fairland High School to make a promotional video that they will share with local schools. The video follows a teen through the teen court litigation process after he is caught shoplifting.
White said the court always is accepting volunteers. For more information about Cabell County Teen Court, visit the group's page on Facebook or contact White by calling 304-751-6251.