One of our youth participants has asked me to write a blog post about the issue of automatically transferring youth to adult court (instead of juvenile court) for hearings, trials and sentencing. While I don't consider myself an expert on this topic, I have come to have a relatively good understanding of this issue and so will attempt to explain the flaws in this practice as I see them.
The 'automatic transfer,' laws indicate that children of a certain age (13 and up, depending on the state) must be automatically transferred to adult court, without a hearing in juvenile court, if they are charged with certain crimes. Variations in these laws exist from state to statE. though, more commonly, the crimes that fall under this law are violent crimes such as murder.
In simple terms, this law prevents the juvenile from having a juvenile court hearing. In other states, these same youth would be allowed to have a juvenile hearing at which time the juvenile court judge would make a decision whether to transfer the case to adult court for trial and sentencing, or to maintain the case in juvenile court. This may seem insignificant at first glance, but it has an extreme impact on the sentencing of these youth.
In juvenile court, their are additional sentencing laws that specifically take into account the developmental differences in children (as opposed to grown adults). For example, the brain itself is not fully developed until the age of 24. The last part of the brain to develop is the area that controls such characteristics as impulsivity, emotional regulation, and thinking through long term consequences. Therefore, adolescents are more prone to have difficulty in these areas simply because of their biological stage of development, and the juvenile court laws reflect this consideration.
Adult court, on the other hand, operates under the assumption that adults who commit serious offences are unlikely to be rehabilitated, or are more likely to commit a repeat offence, and so are subjected to harsher sentences as a strategy to keep the general public safe and deter future offences.
Therefore, when children are automatically transferred to adult court they are not given the opportunity to be seen by a juvenile court judge who would have the opportunity to use their discretion as to whether or not the individual standing before them is likely to be rehabilitated. These children are seen in adult court, and if found guilty. are sentenced according to adult criminal laws.
In the case of murder, many states also have minimum sentences (typically longer sentences for severe crimes) and thus the adult court judges are required to apply these minimum sentences to juveniles who have been transferred to adult court automatically, and again, their biological development, and individual characteristics that would indicate the likelihood of rehabilitation, are not taken into consideration.
The outcome of this practice is that many of these children are given maximum sentences (life in prison) and in some cases without the opportunity for parole. Further, they are placed in adult prisons and in some cases kept in solitary confinement as a means of protecting them from the other (adult) inmates. Solitary confinement has been proven to have a significant and detrimental impact on the development of children and thus has been identified as a human rights violation by the United Nations.
These laws overwhelmingly affect racial minorities, and individuals from low-socio-economic backgrounds. Many cannot afford legal representation and are appointed public attorneys. Many do not have the education, life experience, or knowledge to fully understand the judicial process and often are scared, confused and overwhelmed by the entire process. They are left to make decisions about their case, participate in police interrogations, and make legal statements impacting the overall outcome of their case, without a complete understanding of the justice system and are forced to put their trust in their legal representation rather than making fully informed decisions. These laws assume that the severity of the crime is indicative of developmental maturation and predictive of rehabilitative potential. This assumption is in direct conflict with all psychological and biological research on child development.
Many individuals and organizations have spoken out against this practice and had some success in modifying existing laws at the state level. The Illinois Supreme Court, the United Nations, and the American Bar Association, have all made statements urging lawmakers and legislatures to amend these laws, "as soon as is practicable."
In Illinois, a bill (HB 4538) is currently being evaluated by the Illinois Legislative Assembly, which would end the transfer of juvenile cases to adult court with the exception of cases that have been transferred at the discretion of a juvenile court judge.
As I stated above, this is not my area of expertise and I have done my best to address this issue in this post. For those readers that have more knowledge or expertise on this issue, please comment/share your insights below. All comments, thoughts and feedback are welcome.