ROCKINGHAM — Teen court is back in session.
Parents, teenagers and various members of Richmond County’s criminal justice community met in the old courthouse Thursday evening for an overview of the program, which was developed down the road in Lumberton.
Jim Barbee, interim executive director of Robeson County Teen Court and Youth Services, said the program is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control —which declared youth violence an epidemic following the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999 — and is the only evidence based program of its kind in the nation.
It gives at risk youth an “opportunity to have a second chance,” said April Cline, coordinator of Richmond County Teen Court.
That second chance, could mean an opportunity to save others in the future — which was the case for Ed O’Neal.
The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel started his part of the presentation by showing a video of an interview with him explaining his survival of a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia where he was shot five times and managed to help lead a small group of survivors out of harm’s way.
O’Neal explained that he was a juvenile delinquent in high school. He didn’t steal anything or damage any property, but kept running away from home, which landed him in the Cameron Morrison Youth Center for three months.
But meeting Bill Hester helped turn him around.
“He believed in me,” O’Neal said, which he added is something kids need more of. “Never lose hope. Always believe that it is possible.”
O’Neal said he believes “most people have a good seed in them,” and the right person can help it grow, while the wrong person can destroy it.
“We all make mistakes,” he said. “And how we deal with people might make a difference in their life long-term.”
Teen court has a chance to introduce someone positive to kids who may be going down the wrong path, someone who can challenge them to do better and allow them to change, O’Neal continued.
“A person who has nothing to lose is the most dangerous person in the world,” he concluded, referencing the terrorists who were prepared to die.
Barbee said there were several key people instrumental in getting teen court in Richmond County, including Chief District Court Judge Scott Brewer, who was presented with a plaque for his efforts.
Brewer said there is going to be a big push during the next legislative session to increase the juvenile age in North Carolina to 18. Currently, teens as young as 16 can be tried as adults in criminal court.
Following the presentations was a mock trial, presided by Judge Michael Stone out of Hoke County.
Barbee explained the the purpose of teen court is not to decide guilt or innocence, but to teach youth how to accept responsibility, be accountable for their actions and repair the harm done.
The program is mainly for those with minor misdemeanor charges and doesn’t take violent offenders or those with felonies.
Respondents — a term used rather than “defendants” — must admit to their offense. They then have a chance to respond to the charge in a teen court setting where a jury of their peers, teen volunteers, will handle the sentencing.
The only adults involved in a teen court hearing are the judge, bailiff and other staff. The prosecution and defense counsel, like the jury, are also teens who go through training for their positions.
There are other volunteer opportunities for adults to:
• assist with courtroom management and safety;
• co-facilitate educational seminars and workshops;
• facilitate the jury deliberation process;
• become work site supervisors to oversee community service workers;
• assist in volunteer recruitment, training and retention;
• participate in the sustainability effort; and
• participate in community outreach and engagement activities.
For more information on the Richmond County Teen Court program, call 910-997-8268.
Reach William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.