PARKERSBURG - Brent Benjamin, chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, attended a ceremony Wednesday for the seventh graduate from the Wood County Juvenile Drug Court program.
Benjamin said he wanted to thank Judge Darren Tallman and everyone involved in the juvenile drug program for their participation. The program was started as an alternative to incarceration for certain first-time, nonviolent offenders who pass screenings, receive counseling, hold a job and/or maintain high grades in school.
Officials said the students involved in the program report to a probation officer, daily.
From left, Melissa Heiden and her daughter Lacey Heiden, both of Parkersburg; Wood County Juvenile Drug Court Judge Darren Tallman and Chief Justice Brent Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court. (Photo by Mandi Cardosi)
"It's always a great accomplishment when somebody can graduate the program," Benjamin said. "Everyone here is giving their time; they're not paid extra."
Born in Marietta, Benjamin said he has a special connection to Wood and surrounding counties. Although he left the area early on, he recognizes it as a great place and the drug program as an important initiative to combat drugs in the area, he said.
"It's a testament to the success of the program," Benjamin said. "A number of people have been able to graduate and turn their lives around; it's a good thing for the state."
Tallman said seven juveniles, including 17-year-old Lacey Heiden on Wednesday, have graduated from the program.
"The program is effectively a little over two years old," said Tallman. "None of the previous six, to my knowledge, have had any kind of relapse."
He said one graduate is in college and another joined the military.
Benjamin said as a justice involved in the judicial process he noticed many problems throughout the state stemming from drugs.
"It costs much less than incarceration," he noted. "This is all in an attempt for the judiciary involvement in West Virginia to become more and more service oriented; more family based."
After becoming involved in the drug court program, officials begin to build relationships and worry for the children involved, Tallman said.
"You start worrying about the kids at night," he said. "A lot goes into it."
Tallman said the program takes about nine months to a year for students to complete. Heiden graduated Wednesday after having been involved in the process for about two years, he said.
"We get these kids and their senior year we start seeing something different," Tallman said of the juveniles. "They start going to school and all of a sudden a light bulb goes off."
The program is designed to be achieved in seven months but it usually takes longer, he said.
Benjamin noted the help and support of the local community.
"The school system, attorneys, everyone is out to help these kids," he said. "From a Supreme Court stance we don't want to just say our support; we want to show it."