RICHMOND – Despite testimony from prosecutors, a Senate committee has rejected a bill seeking to streamline the process by which juveniles are tried for multiple charges.
The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 5-10 along party lines against House Bill 911, which was sponsored by Delegate Robert B. Bell, R-Charlottesville.
His bill would apply to a juvenile 14 and older who is charged with a crime that would be a felony if committed by an adult. If such a defendant is transferred from juvenile court to circuit court, HB 911 would make it possible to try all ancillary charges against the juvenile in circuit court. The related charges could include offenses that are not felonies.
Bell said he felt the current method of trying multiple charges in different courts was inefficient. He said some prosecutors were tired of trying the same cases twice.
When asked about the fiscal impact of HB 911, Bell answered simply and quickly.
“I have no idea,” Bell said. “I can come up with an argument how it saves money; it may not save much. I can’t come up with an argument how it costs money.”
But Melissa Goemann, president and executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Juvenile Defender Center, said HB 911 could cost the state money – if the number of charges tried in circuit court increase the likelihood the offender will be sentenced to a prison term.
David Berredo, assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Culpeper County, explained that juveniles already can be tried in circuit court for certain violent felonies, such as murder and rape. The issue is where to try the juvenile defendant on the related charges, such as burglary.
“What we’re talking about is other felonies that are not included under those enumerated felonies,” Berredo said. “The code is silent as far as what happens with misdemeanor charges.”
Harvey L. Bryant, commonwealth’s attorney for the City of Virginia Beach, spoke in favor of HB 911 on behalf of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth Attorneys.
“I have the same opinion that Delegate Bell has,” Bryant said when asked about the fiscal impact of HB 911. “It’s bound to save some time and effort at both the clerk’s level, the commonwealth’s attorney’s level, witness fees and subpoenas. But, Mr. Chairman, I have no idea how to sit here and calculate that.”
Steven Benjamin, special counsel to the committee, added a dose of reality to the fiscal impact debate.
“The only other thing to add to the discussion, and I think it falls to me to say this, is that if you really want to save money, you don’t prosecute every possible violation of the law,” Benjamin said. “You take your best charge and take your best shot, but I just say that because somebody needed to.”
Goemann raised another issue associated with HB 911: Suppose the juvenile is tried in circuit court on both felony and misdemeanor charges – and is convicted only of the misdemeanor. That would mean the juvenile then would have an adult criminal record for a misdemeanor conviction.
“There is no way to remand those (convictions) back down now to juvenile court,” Goemann said. “And that’s a big problem that we see – a juvenile saddled with an adult conviction on misdemeanors.”
The House had approved HB 911 on a 73-25 vote on Feb. 10. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee considered the bill on Wednesday. The five Republicans on the committee, including local Sen. Tommy Norment, voted for the bill; the 10 Democrats voted against it.