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Putnam County Teen Court trains youth on legal issues

Friday, October 1, 2010

More than 30 students participated in the Putnam County Youth Development Commission's third annual Teen Court Program training on Sept. 17 in the Putnam County Courthouse. Training covered the roles of volunteers, including serving as a prosecutor or defense attorney, clerk or bailiff and jury foreperson. Courtesy photo
GREENCASTLE -- More than 30 student volunteers attended the third annual Putnam County Youth Development Commission's Teen Court Program training on Sept. 19.

The training took place at the Putnam County Courthouse. A total of 14 new volunteers, representing all four Putnam County schools, most recently joined the program.

Volunteers heard two cases providing real life experience of the teen court process. Trudy Selvia, a local attorney, donated her Sunday afternoon to share the importance of commitment, dependability, and confidentiality to the program.

Training also covered the roles of volunteers, including serving as a prosecutor or defense attorney, clerk or bailiff and jury foreperson.

"We're very excited about the program's future and the ongoing interest students have demonstrated," said PCYDC Executive Director "Looking ahead, plans include scheduling presentations at all four county middle schools, beginning dialogue with local law enforcement and school administrators to receive future referrals and coordinating a Putnam County Teen Court mock trial competition in early 2011."

The Putnam County Youth Development Commission Teen Court vision became a reality in November of 2007, thanks to the support and cooperation of Putnam County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley, Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter and Putnam County Juvenile Probation.

Teen Court's mission is to provide an opportunity for youth to serve the community and themselves through the practice of citizenship, responsibility, integrity, accountability, and empathy.

Things such as grades, past legal history (probation) or involvement in other activities do not exclude youth from becoming a Teen Court volunteer. Teen Court is a diversionary program for first time non-violent youthful offenders between the ages of 8 to 17.

"This program is a great way to keep young offenders out of the formal court system, and an equally great opportunity for students to volunteer and serve their community," Merkel said. "Beyond its value to the community, service in programs like Teen Court can help provide young people with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need to assume the most important role they have in society, that of a citizen."

In the last three years, a total of 46 cases have been referred to Putnam County Teen Court, with only four cases being referred to Juvenile Probation for further action.

Prior to a court appearance, the youthful offender admits committing the crime or offense and agrees to informal adjudication and disposition (sentencing) by peers. Cases are only returned to probation when an offender does not complete the disposition.

Offenders are tracked for an additional six months following completion of the case. A disposition may include community service, writing a letter of apology to the victim, parent or arresting police officer, restitution or writing an essay on why you should not commit this offense again.

The disposition must also include returning to serve at least two times as a Teen Court juror or perhaps more, based on the severity of the offense. If the offender successfully completes the disposition the case is dismissed and eliminates a juvenile record on file. Some of the criminal offenses heard at teen court include: a minor in consumption, minor in possession, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, possession of paraphernalia and shoplifting.

Comments about the program from previous offenders have included, "It was nice to have teens my own age be the jury," "In the future I will be sure to watch who I hang around with," "I feel this experience was very educational and interesting," and "I now understand how serous it can be if you disobey the rules of the law."

"The Putnam County Youth Development Commission believes it is equally important to receive reaction from student volunteers," Merkel said.

Their comments included, "I love the program, everyone was always friendly and I will definitely miss the experience," "The program was great because I met new people and learned all about the judicial system," "The program made me realize how serious breaking the law is and it definitely helped me with my public speaking.

"We have been honored to receive such great support from eight local attorneys that have freely donated their personal time to preside as the Judge over the court trials," Merkel said. "During the Putnam County Teen Court trainings, these attorneys also share their courtroom expertise. In addition, a large base of community members serve on an advisory board that meets annually and reviews the program's positive impact on Putnam County's youth."

Teen Court has received funding from various sources.

"In the beginning, the financial stability of the program was in question," Merkel said. "But Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter generously presented us with a Putnam County Community Foundation Teen Court Endowment.

"Because of his generosity, the first annual Teen Court Scholarship award was offered this last May," Merkel continued. "Rachel Egold of South Putnam and Kevin Dean of Cloverdale High Schools each received a $500 scholarship. The recipients were selected based on their participation in the program, school activities, future career ambitions, and contributions to the community."

Putnam County Teen Court is held on the third Monday of each month at 6 p.m. in the Putnam County Circuit Courtroom on the third floor of the Putnam County Courthouse.

For more information about the program or to receive an application to become a volunteer, contact any area high school guidance counselor; Renee Marsteller of Juvenile Probation at 653-1257 or Merkel at 653-9342.

"Thank you, Putnam County, for embracing this program and the positive results our youth are experiencing," Merkel said. "This truly is an invaluable and worthwhile program."

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Money talks in the court system. With money you can get away with almost anything just ask O.J Simpson.

-- Posted by 1stamendrights on Sat, Oct 2, 2010, at 1:20 PM

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