Teen Court volunteers judge juvenile offenders

 Angie Dial is an amazing lady running an amazing program. She’s influencing teens to stay out of trouble and possibly enter a career with the justice system. No job gets better than that.

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Teen Court director Angie Dial and Marissa Bracke, a local attorney, review the jury verdict form

Teen Court, organized in Wells County in December 1998, has offered hundreds of local teens the opportunity to see how the criminal justice system works, according to director Angie Dial. “Teen offenders may choose to appear before a jury of their peers on charges including shoplifting, battery and many other offenses,” she said. “Teen Court volunteers can what happens when kids make poor decisions and how those decisions affect the community, their families, and themselves,” she said. “That could influence a young person’s decision about choosing between right and wrong.”

The first and third Monday nights of each month Dial directs Teen Court sessions at the Wells County courthouse in Bluffton. Dial has been a part of Teen Court since January 1999 when she began volunteering for the program which had begun a month earlier.

In December 1998, Angie Dial of Ossian read about a new program beginning in Wells County that would eventually change her life.

The program was called Teen Court. “Its goal was to allow local youth to govern each other’s actions in a legal setting,” said Dial. “Teen offenders may choose to appear before a jury of their peers on charges ranging from shoplifting, battery, theft, receiving stolen property, residential entry, minor in possession of alcohol and/or tobacco, telephone harassment, auto theft, curfew violation, disorderly conduct, driving while intoxicated, and trespassing. Referrals to Teen Court are at the discretion of the probation department.

Dial, whose father had been a deputy with the Wells County Sheriff’s Department, had earned a Criminal Justice degree at IPFW. For several years she had stayed home to raise her three children. Upon learning of the new Teen Court program, she volunteered to manage crowd control in the hallways outside of the courtrooms.

Dial continued to volunteer until May 2001 when she accepted the position of director for the program. She has been there ever since.

Two cases are scheduled on Monday nights beginning at 6 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. Students who volunteer with Teen Court represent each of Wells County’s three public schools, as well as homeschooled and Christian school students. “We’re always looking for volunteers to replace seniors and students who find jobs,” said Dial. She currently has 71 teen volunteers.

A Teen Court volunteer in Grades 6-12 may serve as court clerk, bailiff, jury member, prosecuting attorney or defense attorney for offenders age 17 and under. “At age 18 they are considered adults and tried in a different court,” said Dial.

Teen Court volunteer attorneys are given the police report and other information to prepare. Six attorneys from the Wells County area participate as judges for Teen Court and occasionally offer training for volunteers. There is no cost to volunteers to participate in any Teen Court session or training.

Dial believes Teen Court volunteers gain an advantage by working with the program. “They see what happens when kids make poor decisions and how those decisions affect the community, their families, and themselves,” she said. “Being a volunteer with teen court could influence a young person’s decision about doing something that could get him or her in trouble.”

Angie Dial and Lindsay Reusser, former teen volunteer with Teen Court and college intern, review the jury verdict form.

Dial said another advantage to the students who volunteer with Teen Court is the opportunity to fulfill community service. “Some students need to fill a certain number of hours for a class or organization like the National Honor Society,” she said. “This program counts towards that requirement.” Dial records the hours in court for each volunteer.

A juvenile many choose to participate in Teen Court for various reasons, said Dial. “Sometimes their probation officer recommends it. A friend may have gone through it. Some think a jury of their peers will understand the pressures they experience. Those who participate in Teen Court don’t carry the offense on their juvenile record.” According to the rules of Teen Court, parents of offenders must attend the sessions with their child.

Restitution decided upon by the jury is usually something that relates to the offense, such as writing a letter of apology to a store owner that has been vandalized. “In nearly every case the judge rules the restitution agreed upon by the jury as appropriate for the crime. I’m impressed each time I sit in on a session of Teen Court. It never gets old.”

The End

Reprinted with permission of Ossian Sun Riser

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