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Juvenile Courts

The juvenile courts operate as parallel institutions within the West Virginia legal system. Circuit judges preside over the juvenile courts, and only the largest counties have full-time assistant prosecutors who specialize in juvenile cases.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated major change in the juvenile courts throughout the nation. In the ruling known as In re Gault, the court held that children charged with juvenile delinquency (a juvenile cannot be charged with a ‘‘crime,’’ only with ‘‘delinquency’’) were entitled to basically the same procedural rights as adults. Thereafter a juvenile came to have the advantages of a system inclined to offer a second chance combined with, at the juvenile’s election, all of the procedural rights of an adult. If the alleged offense is particularly heinous, the prosecutor may petition to have the juvenile tried as an adult, thereby subjecting the child to adult punishment.

Generally, the juvenile court’s jurisdiction depends upon the age of the offender. The critical fact is the age of the youth at the time the alleged crime was committed. If the youth was under 18 at that point, then he or she is tried in juvenile court (subject to procedures allowing removal for trial as an adult); if over 18, then the prosecution is conducted through the regular circuit court procedures. Once a youth reaches 18 he or she becomes an adult for purposes of the criminal justice system and would be tried as an adult, not a juvenile. A juvenile court that sentences a juvenile can retain jurisdiction over the youth until he or she reaches 21, however, and a youth correction center can house sentenced delinquents until the age of 23.

Over the years, public opinion as regards young offenders has swung back and forth between a paternalistic philosophy and one of punishment. In 1963, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in State ex rel. Slatton v. Boles ruled that the state policy is to ‘‘protect and reclaim juveniles’’ and that these children should be treated as delinquents rather than as criminals.

Written by H. John Rogers