ALEXANDRIA – Repeat juvenile offenders as young as 14 could find themselves in adult prisons, but many argue simplifying the judicial process could be detrimental to those offenders.
House Bill 718 removes a judge’s discretion on whether to charge a juvenile defendant as an adult when it comes to serious crimes and repeat drug offenses, and allows prosecutors to move the case to circuit court if probable cause is found.
The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Lee, Scott, Washington and Wise, said the measure would leave the decision to prosecutors, not judges.
“It gets at those juveniles who have already been convicted twice of trying to sell or manufacture drugs,” he said. “Those are the folks that are committing those adult crimes, and the prosecutor should have the ability to try those individuals as adults.”
The bill cleared the House in a 79-21 vote this month and has passed through two Senate committees to make its way to a floor debate in the Senate.
Under the current process, a defendant younger than the age of 18 is granted juvenile status and has a preliminary hearing, where a judge will rule on the probable cause of the case, as well as the defendant’s status as an adult or juvenile.
Under Kilgore’s measure, the judge will determine probable cause, but prosecutors could move a case involving serious crimes, or a third drug offense, to adult court. The tougher standards would be applied to defendants as young as 14 years old.
“Prosecutors are elected officials … are the top law enforcement officers in the county and answer to the public in that area. I think it should be their decision,” Kilgore said. “I think that is the way we make a difference, getting those kids out of our schools or those kids that are doing those adult times — they don’t need to be around other minors. I think this helps the prosecutor keep the public safe.”
However, Delegate Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the bill would stack the deck against a juvenile defendant.
“The purpose of the juvenile justice system has always been focused on rehabilitation, education and second chances. The adult system is focused much more on punishment,” he said. “Giving a prosecutor the ability to try a juvenile as an adult increases the stakes and a prosecutor’s leverage significantly.”
Kilgore said the more salient point is to get criminals off the streets.
“You have got to remember that these are folks that are in the system. This is their third time,” he said. “The prosecutor ought to have some more tools” to try them.
In 2010, juveniles were responsible for about 35 percent of violent crime in Virginia, including 17 murders and nearly 5,400 assaults. There were no data on how many of the crimes were perpetrated by repeat offenders.
Michael Sprano, a Fairfax-based criminal defense attorney with juvenile law experience, said giving district attorneys more power in the decision of whether to try juveniles as adults could move more juveniles into the prison system, often without trial.
“It takes it out of the discretion of the judges, who are in a better position to assess what is in the best interest (of) the juvenile in the community,” he said. “The consequences to a kid being tried and certified as an adult can be pretty disastrous. The problem is when you put it in the hands of a prosecutor, often times they will use it as a plea bargaining tool. It gives them a heck of a lot more leverage to put on a kid.”
Stephen Shannon, a former prosecutor and adjunct professor at George Mason School of Law in Arlington, said the proposal is not an automatic adult sentence for juvenile offenders. He said a third-time offender at any age is more likely a full-time drug dealer, rather than a student, in the eyes of prosecutors.
“This doesn’t mean the prosecutor is going to be forced to try the juvenile as an adult, but it expands the range of options for prosecutors,” he said. “I think what Delegate Kilgore is trying to get at is a situation where someone is a minor, but they are an active drug dealer in the community, and the sentences that are available in the juvenile court are simply not getting the message across to this person to stop dealing drugs.”
The bill passed the Senate Finance Committee 10-4 on Tuesday. It could move to the Senate floor as early as Wednesday (today).