Bucking the data, more juveniles being charged, punished as adults

The juvenile criminal justice system has a decidedly different focus compared to its adult counterpart. When a young offender is sentenced as a juvenile, the court is not only concerned with the safety of the community, but also with concentrated efforts to rehabilitate the offender. The adult criminal justice system, on the other hand, relies on a more heavy-handed and punitive approach.

For serious juvenile crimes, more and more defendants are being tried in Circuit Court as adults if they are 14 or older. This can mean far more severe punishment, as well as denied access to the rehabilitative services of the juvenile justice system.

Those 14 or older could be transferred to adult court in Virginia

In Virginia a juvenile is anyone under the age of 18. This means that generally speaking, someone who allegedly committed an offense and is 17 or younger will be dealt with in the juvenile court system.

However, age alone does not guarantee a place in the juvenile courts. Under Virginia law, anyone who stands accused of certain enumerated crimes and is at least 14 years old, could either be certified or be transferred to circuit court for trial as an adult, with the possibility of adult sentencing to include incarceration in the adult penitentiary system. "Certification" to circuit court for trial as an adult is automatic for serious violent crimes, for example, murder, robbery, malicious wounding or various firearm offenses, if the prosecutor simply requests it and can show probable cause at a preliminary hearing in juvenile court. "Transfer" to adult court typically occurs when the case involves a less serious crime, but the prosecutor nonetheless requests treatment as an adult. In the case of a transfer request, the juvenile court judge has the discretion to deny transfer and retain the juvenile in his or her court.

A body of research shows that putting juveniles in adult court is counterproductive

As part of "tough on crime" rhetoric, the policy of including more juveniles in the adult justice system has gained broader popularity over the last 20 years. But does it work?

In the Journal Crime and Justice, noted criminologist Donna Bishop published a review of the most comprehensive studies available on the subject. In her report, Bishop declared that no evidence exists to support the conclusion that laws making it easier to transfer youthful offenders to adult court have a measurable effect in lowering juvenile crime rates.

On the contrary, several studies have actually linked adult sentencing with higher rates of recidivism among youthful offenders. For instance, a study conducted by Columbia University's Jeffrey Fagan found that juveniles processed in the adult system for a robbery offense were approximately ten percent more likely to be rearrested after release compared to similarly situated juveniles whose cases were handled in the juvenile system.

Is a youth in your life being accused of a serious crime? Contact an attorney

While the policy behind putting juveniles in adult court is arguably based on dubious assumptions, the fact remains that juveniles who are charged with a serious offense face substantially stepped up penalties when transferred to the adult system. If a child in your life has been accused of a criminal offense, get in touch with a defense attorney as soon as possible; your attorney can devise a legal strategy to help mitigate the long-term consequences that come with adjudication in adult court.