Prosecution of Young People as Adults Defies Spirit of Supreme Court Ruling

Posted March 17, 2016
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog guestpostmarcymistrett 2016

Guest post by Mar­cy Mis­trett, chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of the Cam­paign for Youth Justice

Fifty years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court con­sid­ered the rights of chil­dren pros­e­cut­ed in the adult crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. In Kent v. Unit­ed States, the Court deter­mined whether a child had a right to be heard and, if so, the right to due process under the Four­teenth Amendment.

Mor­ris Kent, a 16-year-old from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., was accused of rape and rob­bery in 1961. His attor­ney argued for Kent’s case to be heard in juve­nile court, but the judge waived Kent to the adult crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem with­out the pro­tec­tions of a for­mal hearing.

The Supreme Court found in favor of Kent, cit­ing the pro­tec­tive and reha­bil­i­ta­tive prin­ci­ples of the juve­nile court and the seri­ous­ness of the deci­sion to remove pro­tec­tions from children.

Fifty years lat­er, the Kent Court would be shocked that 200,000 youth are pros­e­cut­ed in the adult crim­i­nal court sys­tem annu­al­ly in the Unit­ed States. Most of these chil­dren are sent direct­ly to the adult sys­tem by statute based on the charge and their age or by pros­e­cu­tors; nei­ther of which requires review by a juve­nile court judge. These youth trans­fers are side­step­ping the crit­i­cal step of due process, despite the fact that 45 states pro­vide judi­cial dis­cre­tion and allow for a for­mal hearing.

Con­sid­er these sta­tis­tics on youth trans­fer from the Office of Juve­nile Jus­tice and Delin­quen­cy Prevention:

  • Leg­is­la­tures in 29 states trans­fer large num­bers of young offend­ers to adult court by enact­ing statutes that exclude cer­tain cas­es from juve­nile court juris­dic­tion. Forty per­cent of states include non­vi­o­lent charges as part of their statu­to­ry exclu­sion provisions.
  • Fif­teen states allow for pros­e­cu­tors to file crim­i­nal charges against juve­niles direct­ly in adult crim­i­nal court

The good news is that states are push­ing back on these prac­tices, favor­ing case-by-case review by a judge. These reforms have been suc­cess­ful­ly imple­ment­ed in states such as Col­orado, Illi­nois and Nebraska.

Change is under­way in oth­er states as well.

In Cal­i­for­nia, the gov­er­nor is sup­port­ing a bal­lot ini­tia­tive to try to roll back direct fil­ing of charges by pros­e­cu­tors in favor of judges mak­ing the deci­sion to transfer.

In Flori­da, there is an effort to roll back the state’s direct-file laws significantly.

In Louisiana, the focus is on a munic­i­pal strat­e­gy in New Orleans Parish, where the dis­trict attor­ney direct­ly files 80 per­cent of eli­gi­ble cas­es into the adult crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

In Mary­land, where cur­rent law excludes chil­dren from juve­nile court juris­dic­tion for an alarm­ing 33 crimes, leg­is­la­tors have intro­duced bills to repeal the vast major­i­ty of these pro­vi­sions for 14-year-olds and nar­row those that are applic­a­ble to 16-year-olds.

This is an excit­ing moment in the reform move­ment. Over the past 20 years, exten­sive research in ado­les­cent devel­op­ment and prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence has vast­ly increased our knowl­edge about young peo­ple, their behav­ior and how sys­tems can best respond to pro­tect pub­lic safe­ty and get young offend­ers back on track.

Kent got it right back in 1966 when it acknowl­edged the spe­cial con­cern” our judi­cial sys­tem must afford to chil­dren. Chil­dren are not adults, and should not be treat­ed as such. It is past time for states to embrace this prin­ci­ple and pro­tect our youth.

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