The problem of juvenile crime has plagued American society for decades. State legislatures, prosecutors, and other officials have taken a wide variety of approaches when dealing with youthful offenders. In many cases, minors are tried in the juvenile justice system, but there are some situations in which the seriousness of the crimes may need to be addressed in adult courts. There’s an ongoing debate about which types of crimes should require a child to be tried as an adult, the age at which a minor should be transferred out of the juvenile justice system, and how to effectively deal with these issues in a way that reduces crime rates and lowers the risks of reoffending.
In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 57, which prohibited prosecutors from directly filing charges against juveniles under the age of 18 in adult court, under any circumstances. The law now requires a hearing in juvenile court in what is called a “transfer hearing” before a youthful offender can be transferred to adult court on criminal charges. There, the judge makes a decision as to where the juvenile’s case will be adjudicated, based on the following criteria:
- Degree of sophistication exhibited by the minor.
- Whether the minor can be rehabilitated prior to the expiration of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction.
- The minor’s previous delinquent history.
- Success of previous attempts by the court to rehabilitate the minor.
- The circumstances and gravity of the offense alleged in the petition to have been committed by the minor.
I have conducted a number of “juvenile transfer’ evaluations to address the above-noted criteria and assist the juvenile court judge in making a decision as to which court the juvenile’s case should be heard. It’s a momentous decision. In juvenile court, the rules of law are quite different from those of adult court. First, the case is decided by a juvenile court judge, not a jury. If found guilty of a serious crime, the focus is not simply on retribution, but rehabilitation. The goal is to help juveniles develop the personal resources necessary for future success in life, and to avoid future criminal activity. In order to effectively intervene, the juvenile legal system may have authority over the juvenile for up to his (or her) twenty-fifth year.
Adult criminal court, on the other hand, focuses primarily on punishment. Adults face long prison sentences for serious crimes, longer periods of probation and other consequences. Unlike juvenile offenders, a conviction in adult court will also result in a permanent criminal record that can affect a person’s ability to obtain employment, education, or housing in their adult life.
A juvenile case in point: Several years ago, I evaluated Andrew, a 15 year old who was arrested and charged with murder. He was with two young adult gang members when one got into an altercation with a neighborhood drug dealer, leading to the dealer being stabbed to death. Although there was no evidence that he was involved in the altercation, Brain was present at the time and charged with murder. Having been identified by the police as a gang member, the prosecution alleged that he was there to protect and help his “homie,” and wanted him tried as an adult.
Andrew denied any involvement in the murder or membership in a gang. He had previously been detained by police while walking home from school with known members of a local gang, so the police identified him as one. However, he never dressed like a gang member and he had no record of participating in any criminal activity. He never even had a curfew violation. He admitted to hanging out with them, ‘kicking it” as he said. He added, “They’re my friends. I grew up with them.”
My evaluation of Andrew found him to be quite unsophisticated and immature, intellectually and emotionally. He had a language learning disability and had received special education service at school, beginning in elementary school years. Although immature and impulsive, he did not have the psychosocial history or “footprint” of a budding criminal. He had no prior criminal history. He had no record of significant discipline problems at school or of aggression. He admitted to drug use, but with no history of selling, as did some local gang members. He came from a supportive family, which includes his mother and two older sisters. He had almost no contact with his father, which his mother said caused him distress as a child. He would ask her why his father “doesn’t care.”
I presented evidence, based on my interviews with Andrew and extensive psychological and neuropsychological testing, that he was both emotionally immature and behind from a neuropsychological perspective, even when compared to his peers. Neuroscientific studies have shown that minors’ brains are still developing, up to the age of 25. Because of this, they may act impulsively and they may not have developed the decision-making skills that would keep them from making poor choices. This was certainly the case with Andrew, even when compared to his peers. ”Kicking it” with older gang members was not wise, but was clearly a function of his immature thinking and poor judgment, and not from a criminal propensity.
I was able to successfully address the five factors listed above. The judge ruled that Andrew was to be adjudicated in juvenile court.