Justice for Virginia juveniles

Sunday, December 6, 2009

MORE THAN a decade ago, Virginia passed laws that significantly revamped its juvenile justice system and led more youths to be held, tried and sentenced as adults. These laws have been counterproductive and discriminatory in impact. It is time to rebalance the scales.

On Dec. 15, the Virginia State Crime Commission will have such an opportunity when it meets to consider changes to the system. The 13-member commission -- a bipartisan mix of lawmakers, lawyers and law enforcement officials -- will forward any recommendations to the General Assembly.

The commission should begin by recommending that the state abolish the practice of allowing alleged juvenile offenders -- some as young as 14 -- to be held in adult facilities before they are tried. Throwing children in with adults increases the chances that they will be physically or sexually assaulted. It also prevents children -- who can be held for weeks or months as they await trial -- from getting counseling and educational opportunities routinely offered in the juvenile framework.

African Americans are particularly affected. The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission noted in a report this year that 73 percent of the youths tagged for adult prosecution in 2005 were African American -- even though African American juveniles represented only 43 percent of all those initially swept into the juvenile justice system.

Another must-do reform involves handing back to juvenile court judges more of a voice in determining whether juveniles may be tried as adults. Virginia law, intended to deal with the most dangerous juvenile offenders, currently requires that any juvenile charged with murder or certain assaults be automatically transferred to the adult system.

Yet a newly issued report by the JustChildren program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia noted that between 2001 and 2008 most youths transferred to the adult system were not accused of the most violent crimes. Only 6 percent were transferred on murder charges; 33 percent were there for robbery, which, as the center said, could include both a major-league robber and a child who steals a classmate's lunch money by threatening harm.

One reason too many juveniles are directed to adult courts is prosecutors' almost unilateral power to do so. A prosecutor may bypass a juvenile court judge who refuses to sign off on the transfer by going directly to the adult circuit court to obtain an indictment. Such a circumvention removes a much-needed check on prosecutorial authority. In its stead, either side should be allowed to appeal a juvenile court judge's decision to an independent circuit court judge.

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