For juvenile offenders, it's all about rehab, not punishment

Judge: "Our juvenile justice system has been developed to protect and rehabilitate children — not to punish them"

By Wendy Holdren
The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W. Va. — When juveniles, or persons under the age of 18, commit low-level crimes (which would be misdemeanors for adults) or serious or violent crimes (which would be felonies for adults), they cannot be detained in any jail that houses adult prisoners.

Raleigh County Circuit Court Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick III said the State of West Virginia, through the Division of Juvenile Services, has created a comprehensive array of centers and facilities strategically located throughout the state, which are designed to detain, diagnose or house children referred to juvenile court.

“Our juvenile justice system has been developed to protect and rehabilitate children — not to punish them,” Kirkpatrick said.

He said when a juvenile commits a crime, the matter is often diverted before a case is even filed. An alleged delinquent may be referred to a Department of Health and Human Resources worker, or to a probation officer, for an informal resolution of the problem instead of formal proceedings.

Kirkpatrick said possible informal resolutions include counseling and treatment programs, informal probation, community service and teen court.

“I estimate that at least half of juvenile delinquency matters here are resolved in this manner,” he noted. “The child may be placed on an improvement period, released unto the custody of his or her parents and supervised by the juvenile probation office.”

Sometimes an abeyance period is implemented for six months, where the matter is simply placed on hold to see if the juvenile gets into any more trouble.

If the situation cannot be resolved informally, a juvenile delinquency petition can be filed in the circuit clerk’s office by any person with information and knowledge about the facts constituting alleged delinquency.

Kirkpatrick said typically after a petition is filed and probable cause is shown, a circuit judge or magistrate will order the child to be taken into custody, and the officer will provide notice to the juvenile’s parent, guardian or custodian about the pickup.

“Sometimes, the juvenile will be released unto a parent or family member at this juncture, but more often than not, the juvenile will be promptly taken before a circuit judge for a detention hearing.”

The issue at hand during the hearing is to decide whether the juvenile should be held in custody pending further court proceedings. Unless the juvenile’s health, safety and welfare are endangered, the judge must release the child to his or her guardian. Otherwise, the juvenile will be detained at a detention center.

• • •

West Virginia is home to six juvenile detention centers, with the Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center in Mount Hope being the closest to Raleigh County.

Kirkpatrick said the Gene Spadaro Juvenile Center is essentially a temporary placement for juveniles who are charged with a crime that would be a punishable offense if committed by an adult.

The facility offers a secure environment with minimum restrictions while juvenile residents await commitments to permanent placement facilities. Each child is assessed at this facility for suicidal ideations and mental health issues, and a specialized program is developed for every resident.

A year-round, on-ground school is operated there by the West Virginia Board of Education. The facility stresses positive reinforcement to promote good behavior and to decrease negative actions.

The next step in the process is a preliminary hearing, at which a juvenile may request an improvement period. If the court is convinced that an improvement period would be appropriate, a noncustodial improvement period with terms and conditions designed to rehabilitate the juvenile may be granted.

“Of course, random drug screening is a critical part of any improvement period,” Kirkpatrick said.

And if the improvement period is successfully completed, the court will dismiss the case. However, if the case is not resolved at the preliminary hearing, the juvenile delinquency case will move on to an adjudicatory hearing, which is the trial phase in a juvenile case.

“The child is entitled to basically the very same rights at trial as an adult would have,” Kirkpatrick pointed out. “That means that the juvenile may ask for a full-blown jury trial, and is afforded all the Constitutional protections that would apply in a regular criminal case.”

He said the juvenile respondent would be presumed innocent, and the prosecuting attorney would be required to prove the respondent’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a trial before an impartial jury.

The juvenile would be represented by a lawyer in all stages of the proceedings, and he or she would have an opportunity to be heard, the ability to testify and the right to present witnesses.

The chief difference between the juvenile court trial and the adult criminal trial is that the juvenile trial would be a closed proceeding — it would not be open to the public or reported by the media, Kirkpatrick said.

Furthermore, West Virginia law provides that the records of juveniles charged with an offense should not follow the juvenile for the rest of his or her life. Not only is there the element of secrecy about the identity of a charged juvenile, these records are sealed by the court to protect the rights of the juvenile when he or she reaches adulthood.

• • •

An alternative to a trial in juvenile court is resolution by entering a guilty plea. Most of the juvenile delinquency petitions that reach the trial stage are handled this way, Kirkpatrick said.

To enter a guilty plea, the juvenile will appear with his or her lawyer and family members, and make an admission of conduct that is violative of the law. The court must conduct a lengthy hearing, explaining to the juvenile his or her rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as those provided by juvenile law.

If the court determines that the juvenile fully understands his or her rights, and that there is a basis in fact for the admission to committing the crime, the court will accept the plea and adjudge the juvenile to be a delinquent child as provided for in West Virginia law.

“Many times, a juvenile will appear before me without a family member accompanying him or her,” Kirkpatrick said. “In other words, the child stands alone in court, only with a lawyer on his or her side. When that happens, I have a pretty good idea how that kid got to juvenile court in the first place.”

The last phase of the juvenile court case is the dispositional hearing, which would be akin to a sentencing hearing for adult criminal defendants, but again, it is not open to the public or media.

“When I was a kid, and contemplated doing something bad, my parents and teachers would threaten to send me to Pruntytown — the juvenile equivalent of the penitentiary. In my mind, that was the worst thing that could possibly happen to any kid.”

Pruntytown Correctional Center was originally established as the West Virginia Industrial Home for Boys, but now is used as an adult correctional facility.

At the dispositional hearing, the judge will typically sentence the convicted juvenile delinquent to a secure juvenile center for a term of years. For example, the Donald R. Kuhn Juvenile Center at Julian, in Boone County, is a correctional center that can house both male and female offenders.

Raleigh County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney John Gallaher, who handles a number of juvenile cases, spoke highly of Elkins Mountain School, which has proved highly successful at rehabilitating juvenile offenders.

The term of confinement will be influenced by the seriousness of the offense, and will also be dependent upon how lengthy the penitentiary term would be if the juvenile were an adult offender. The juvenile court judge can sentence a delinquent into custody until he or she is 21 years of age, even though the child would achieve adult status at age 18.

• • •

Kirkpatrick noted that judges have lesser sentencing options to consider, and will many times suspend the execution of confinement in “juvenile prison” in favor of a less restrictive alternative.

“It costs approximately $100,000 per year to incarcerate a kid. We could pay only about $33,000 to provide local services that would be more effective in preventing the juvenile delinquent from becoming a hard-core adult criminal later.”

Alternatives to confinement include supervised probation with a strict regimen implemented, and referral to the supervision of the juvenile’s parents or other family members. The court can also refer the child to appropriate social services and counseling. Community service work can also be utilized as part of the sentence, as well as participation in drug treatment programs.

“Judges will look for alternatives to detention and confinement of kids in juvenile facilities,” Kirkpatrick said.

He said the majority of juveniles in West Virginia’s justice system are low-level offenders, and research has demonstrated that lengthy out-of-home placements fail to produce better outcomes than alternative sanctions for many juveniles, particularly those on the low end of the scale.

“We need to promote early intervention with the families of troubled youth, and create more community-based options and diversion programs, rather than automatically packing kids off to a lock-up facility.”

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Gallaher agreed that prevention or early intervention is key.

Gallaher said that with a significant portion of the adult population having drug problems or a criminal history, youngsters aren’t left with many good role models.

“I think a significant portion of (issues) start in the home. There are rare instances, though, when kids from good families and good homes get into trouble.”

Kids largely imitate what they see, Gallaher said, which leads children who grow up in problematic homes to have the same kind of lifestyle.

“If they see bad conduct the whole time, it’ll develop into something worse. It’s heartbreaking to see.”

He encourages parents to start at home, being good role models to their children and offering positive reinforcement. Sports, extracurricular activities and free community programs are also great ways to keep kids on the right path.

For troublesome youths who may need a reminder of what their future may hold, Gallaher recommends the program Scared Straight, where juveniles can be taken for a first-hand look at Southern Regional Jail. He said that program has proved to be quite beneficial.

Kirkpatrick noted that the Legislature is currently looking at ways to streamline and improve the state’s entire juvenile justice system. Gallaher said he would especially like to see facilities consider accepting 17-year-olds who are nearing their 18th birthday.

“Oftentimes, no one will take them because they won’t complete the program before they turn 18, so we have to look at out-of-state options.”

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