Juvenile Law for Rehabilitation Can Restore a Child's Life and Family

The Juvenile Law system generally focuses "on rehabilitating rather than punishing juvenile offenders.[1]  Judges are given broad discretion to act within the "best interests of the child" without needing to involve attorneys, juries, or evidentiary rules.[2]  Moreover, juvenile offenders are given added protection from societal scrutiny with confidentiality and limited access to their juvenile records, as well as new terminology that basically had the same effect as adult criminal courts in substance, but was called something different to avoid labeling juveniles as criminals.[3]"

Johnita Mayo, Regent Law 2011 Juris Doctor Candidate, discusses the double-edged sword juvenile offenders may face when states try to protect their best interests in the juvenile law system - longer and harsher sentences design for their rehabilitation.  She explores attempts to maintain due process protections for children, how juvenile criminal sentences have been amended in case law, and how juveniles can be restored to their families and their lives if the proper action is taken for their crimes and circumstances.  She writes:

"Consequently, juvenile courts in their infancy did not give constitutional protections to juvenile offenders because they were more focused on rehabilitating juvenile offenders.  After all, they were supposed to be using the best interest of the child standard.  With juvenile offenders and child advocates outraged over the way juvenile offenders were starting to receive harsher sanctions without parental notification and without attorneys being present, it was not long before constitutional challenges to state laws and juvenile court decisions erupted.  In 1966, the Supreme Court in Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541, limited juvenile judges' discretion in transferring juveniles to adult courts for criminal prosecution.[4]  In 1967, the Supreme court in In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, held that juveniles in delinquency proceedings were entitled to a right to counsel, notice of charges, privilege against self-incrimination, and a right to cross-examine witnesses.[5]  These rulings seem like a victory for juvenile offenders, however, they create a double-edged sword.

In rulings following Kent and In re Gault, the juvenile delinquency crackdown was in full swing.  In 1971, the Supreme Court in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528, held that juvenile offenders in juvenile delinquency proceedings have no constitutional right to a jury because that is a fact-finding function and juries are not necessary for that purpose.[6]

With juveniles getting younger and their offenses more serious, in the mid-1970s, facing public pressure to toughen up on juvenile offenders, state legislatures, and superior courts began to turn away from a rehabilitative philosophical approach and moved toward punitive sanctions.[7]  Moreover, some state legislatures began creating laws that allowed juvenile offenders to be put to death for offenses they committed.

However, the United States Supreme Court saw things differently.  In March of 2005, the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, held that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on juvenile offenders who were under the age of eighteen at the time they committed their offense.[8]

In 2010, the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida, No. 08–7412, slip op at 31 (U.S. May 17, 2010), held that the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime where there was not a homicide.[9]  
"You're now seeing more kids at younger ages in the adult system."[10]  Consequently, an increasing number of juveniles in the juvenile justice system are receiving longer sentences for less serious offenses.[11]  Currently, in the United States of America, all fifty states allow juveniles to be criminally prosecuted and sentenced in some capacity.[12]  However, whether states choose to criminally prosecute juveniles as adults within a Juvenile Court versus in the Criminal Justice System is where things get a little trickier. 

This article analyzes how states approach juvenile offenders in the context of criminal prosecution and sentencing and how transfer and blended sentencing laws affect prosecutorial and judicial discretion.  Consequently, transfer and blended sentencing laws have a direct correlation to the non-uniformity among states in determining whether to prosecute juvenile offenders within the Juvenile Justice System or in the Criminal Justice System.  Also contained in this article are examples of states that use some sort of transfer, blended sentencing, and in most cases a combination of the two types of laws to determine whether to criminally prosecute and sentence juvenile offenders.  Section I discusses the current laws and factors that state legislatures, juvenile courts, prosecutors, and in some cases criminal courts, take into consideration when making determinations of whether to transfer a juvenile to criminal court or apply juvenile and/or adult sanctions to juveniles in juvenile or criminal court.  Section II reviews what is wrong with the current laws and factors used by juvenile courts in the United States.  It reveals the non-uniformity of the system and the failure to address the core issues of why the juvenile is a delinquent in the first place.  It also sheds light on how legislatures, prosecutors, juvenile court, and criminal court judges, justify their use of discretion under the best interest of the child theory for rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, but in practice are really analyzing the best interest of the child within the framework of the benefit and safety of society and applying more punitive measures.  Finally, Section III discusses proposed additional factors that juvenile court judges, state legislatures, and prosecutors, should consider in making determinations of whether to apply adult sanctions or transfer juvenile offenders to criminal court. 

[1] See Id. (stating the original focus of juvenile courts).
[2] See Id. at 96-97 (stating the best interest of the child standard that should govern juvenile court judges' decisions concerning juvenile offenders).
[3] See Paul Marcotte, Criminal Kids, 76 A.B.A.J. 61 (1990) (stating the unique protections that juveniles are afforded).
[4] See Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966) (addressing fairness of juvenile courts and stating that juveniles were getting the worst of the adult and child worlds).
[5] See In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967) (addressing constitutional protections afforded to juveniles in juvenile proceedings).
[6] See McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971) (stating in a 6-3 plurality opinion that a jury is not necessary for fact-finding).
[7] See Paul Marcotte, Criminal Kids, 76 A.B.A.J. 61 (1990) (Quoting Robert Shepherd Jr., former director of the Youth Advocacy Clinic at the University of Richmond School of Law).
[8] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (ruling the death penalty for juvenile offenders who were under the age of eighteen years old at the time they committed a crime as unconstitutional).
[9] See Graham v. Florida, No. 08–7412., slip op. at 7-31 (U.S.  May 17, 2010) (ruling that life sentences for juvenile offenders who committed non-homicide offenses are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution).
[10] See Paul Marcotte, Criminal Kids, 76 A.B.A.J. 61 (1990) (Quoting the late Robert Shepherd Jr., former director of the Youth Advocacy Clinic at the University of Richmond School of Law).
[11] See Id. (stating juveniles are being held on drug offenses, and are being incarcerated longer)
[12] See NATIONAL CENTER FOR JUVENILE JUSTICE, STATE JUVENILE JUSTICE PROFILES (2008) available at http://www.ncjj.org/stateprofiles/ (Stating that all states allow adult criminal prosecution and sentencing of juveniles under some circumstances).

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