Teen Court is back in session

Published 9:57 am Tuesday, December 9, 2008

WINDSOR – Teen Court is officially on its way back to Bertie County.

During last week’s meeting of the Bertie County Board of Education, Sonja Murray of One Economy Corporation presented plans from the company to reintroduce the program in the county with cooperation from a variety of organizations.

Murray said the reintroduction of teen court came about as the end result of research done because of absences at The Hive’s alternative education setting. She said a number of students were absent and it turned out they were in court.

“When people don’t come to school because of court, it’s an issue,” Murray said. “We cannot educate children who are not in school.”

She also explained what the program would be.

“Teen court is a juvenile intervention program,” Murray said. “We will only be able to work with those who admit guilt. They will be reviewed and tried by their peers and will have no record.”

She said the program would only work with non-serious offenses such as noise, littering and destruction of property. Teen court may only deal with crimes against the community and cannot be used for crimes against the state.

“In teen court, you don’t just punish, but try to get to the cause of the problem,” she said.

Murray stressed the new program would have a host of people working together including the legal community and the school district. Already such partners have been identified, including the Bertie County Family Resource Center, Bertie County Sheriff’s Office, District 6B District Attorney’s Office, the Bertie County Board of Commissioners, Town of Windsor and Judge W. Rob Lewis.

An advisory board has also been set up to establish the parameters of the program. Members of that board include Charles Angel, Steve Biggs, Cynthia Bunch, Collins Cooper, Hoyt Cooper, John Holley, Emma Johnson, Tracy Joyner, J. Wallace Perry, Morris Rascoe, Bob Spivey and Dr. Chip Zullinger.

Murray said the program would be run mostly through volunteers, but would have one paid staff person who likely would begin part-time.

“My gut tells me we can run this program for $45,000 per year,” Murray said. “There is money available through the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and we will seek funding for the program.”

Board member Alton Parker said he was concerned about the way the program had been run in the past and was supportive of teen court’s return as long as it was operated properly.

“I’m supportive of teen court, but I want to see it operated better than it was before,” Parker said. “I think those who are involved need to understand consequences of their behavior.”

Parker went on to say there were times in the past when juveniles were sentenced to community service, but never performed it because no one made sure they did.

“That will not happen this time,” Murray said. “We will make sure the person fulfills their sentence and if someone doesn’t, we won’t use that agency again.”

Murray said the school district was going to be a part of teen court and should feel free to question any part of the program.

“You should feel comfortable to hold us accountable,” she said. “Even though you are not funding the program, you are a partner and have every right to hold us accountable.”

Parker said the previous program did not help children the way it should have and he wanted to see the new program “give the kids the help they need.”

Board member Emma Johnson also stressed the importance of working with all judicial officials.

“I want us to work with all the judges,” Johnson said. “I think some of them are concerned we would be circumventing things they should deal with.”

Murray promised that the judicial system would play a larger role in teen court than in the past and said that it could only operate if District Attorney Valerie Asbell signed off on it.

Parker then reiterated his stance.

“We think it has the potential to be a positive program. It’s a good concept,” he said. “We just want to make sure it’s done right.”

While not participating in the discussion at that time, board member Gloria Lee said later she had a different opinion of the previous teen court operation.

“Teen court, I think, is needed,” Lee said. “My experience with teen court is different from Mr. Parker’s because I thought it was helpful, but I agree there is always room for improvement.”