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State Trends: Legislative Changes from 2005 to 2010 Removing Youth from the Adult Criminal Justice System published by the Campaign for Youth Justice provides the latest information about youth in the adult justice system. The first half of the report explains the dangers to youth, public safety, and the overall prosperity of our economy and future generations.  The second half of the report looks at legislative reforms aimed at removing youth from the criminal justice system by examining state juvenile justice legislation compiled by the National Juvenile Defender Center and the National Conference of State Legislatures. The legislative scan identified 15 states that have changed their state laws and eight more with active reform efforts underway in four categories:

 

  • Removing youth from adult jails and prisons
  • Raising the age of juvenile Court Jurisdiction
  • Changing transfer laws to keep more youth in juvenile court
  • Rethinking sentencing laws for youth

 

Virginia was profiled in the report for recent changes protecting youth from incarceration with adults and changing its “once an adult, always an adult” law.  The report can be found here.

The report’s release was covered by USA Today on March 16, 2011.

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There is a nationwide trend towards prosecuting fewer teenagers in adult courts.  This change has been prompted by recent developments in psychology and neurology as well as data showing that the trial and incarceration of youth as adults results in higher recidivism rates and other negative repercussions.  The New York Times reported on this trend this past weekend. Will Virginia follow suit?

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2011 General Assembly Wrap Up

The last day of the 2011 General Assembly session is Saturday.  Thank you for your advocacy efforts on behalf of Virginia’s youth throughout the session.  The Don’t Throw Away the Key Campaign was instrumental in bringing attention to the unfairness and ineffectiveness of the transfer system and preventing further erosion of judicial discretion. A very bad bill that would have resulted in hundreds more youth being tried as adults in Virginia was defeated. Two positive bills that would have improved our system for trying youth as adults passed the Senate but were ultimately unable to make it out of the House

Below is an update on the specific bills Don’t Throw Away the Key tracked:

  • SB 914 (McDougle) was defeated in the Senate Courts Committee.  This bill would have made it easier to try more youth as adults in Virginia and further limited judicial discretion over this very important decision.  This bill was recommended by the Virginia State Crime Commission to the General Assembly.  Its defeat is a huge accomplishment and will prevent many youth from entering the adult criminal justice system. Congratulations on this great achievement!
  • SB 822 (Edwards) passed the Senate but was ultimately unable to pass the House Courts Committee. This bill would have given youth the right to appeal a prosecutor’s decision to try them as an adult. Thank you to all of you who supported this bill by making phone calls, sending emails, or attending a hearing. A special thank you to former Director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice Barry Green for emphatically testifying in support of this bill in the House Courts subcommittee.
  • SB 914 (Howell) passed the Senate unanimously but was pulled by the patron before a vote was taken in the House. This bill would have allowed Circuit Court judges to grant youth a juvenile adjudication upon successful completion of probationary terms set by the judge.  The fact that this bill was not voted down in the House will make it easier to potentially bring it again in the future.
  • HB 1980 (Greason) never received a hearing in the House. This bill would have expanded the categories of automatic transfer and prosecutorial certification by adding conspiracies and attempts to commit the violent juvenile felonies listed within each category.

Thank you for your continued support of these reforms! Be on the lookout for more opportunities to take action in the future!

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There were several successes for youth in the Virginia Senate thanks to everyone who called or emailed Senators and attended committee hearings!

Both bills that could significantly improve Virginia’s system of trying youth as adults passed the Senate.  SB 822 (Edwards) would allow circuit court judges to review a prosecutor’s decision to certify cases to adult court — just as they can now review decisions of juvenile court judges.  SB 948 (Howell) would allow circuit court judges to give youth the opportunity to earn a juvenile delinquency adjudication upon successful completion of terms and conditions set by the judge. These bills will now move to the House of Delegates where the committee process will start over again.  Be on the lookout for opportunities to advocate for the passage of these bills!

In addition to the passage of the two bills above, you prevented the passage of a bill that would have made it easier for youth to be tried as adults and increased the number of youth that would face trial in adult courts and possible adult criminal penalties. SB 914 (McDougle) would have expanded the categories of automatic transfer and prosecutorial certification by adding second or subsequent acts of violence to the list of offenses that may be automatically transferred and by adding gang participation and second or subsequent drug offenses to the list of offenses that may be certified.  Your actions have saved so many of Virginia’s youth!

Thank you for your continued advocacy on behalf of Virginia’s youth! There will be more opportunities to take action in the coming month!

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Several articles about JustChildren’s new report, Unlocking the Truth: Real Stories About the Trial and Incarceration of Youth as Adults in Virginia, have recently run across the Commonwealth. Check out the articles by following the links below:

Advocacy Group Report Criticizes Virginia’s Treatment of Juvenile’s in Adult Court, Richmond Times Dispatch, Nov. 10, 2010

Tough Prison Sentences Throw Away the Key on Teen Offenders, Virginian Pilot, Nov. 14, 2010
Juvenile Justice: Drawing Lines, Richmond Times Dispatch, Nov. 21, 2010

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The JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center released a new report today that tells the often untold and overlooked stories of youth tried and incarcerated as adults in Virginia.  The report, Unlocking the Truth: Real Stories About the Trial and Incarceration of Youth as Adults in Virginia, is a result of JustChildren’s listening tour with youth convicted as adults, families, community members, and attorneys during the summer and fall of 2010.  The report confirms that Virginia’s system of trying youth as adults is unfair, unsafe, and ineffective.

The report’s findings and recommendations are timely as the Virginia State Crime Commission is currently studying the issue of trying youth as adults and considering two bills carried over from the 2010 legislative session specifically focused on altering the current process for trying youth as adults.  It is expected that the Crime Commission will issue their recommendations on December 8, 2010.

Unlocking the Truth is the second of two reports examining Virginia’s transfer system. Click on the following link for a copy of  JustChildren’s 2009 report, Don’t Throw Away the Key: Reevaluating Adult Time for Youth Crime in Virginia.

The Key Findings from Unlocking the Truth: Real Stories About the Trial and Incarceration of Youth as Adults in Virginia:

  • Adult convictions undermine successful reentry.  Youth tried, convicted, and incarcerated as adults in Virginia face numerous obstacles to living productive and crime-free lives upon their return home due to a lack of services and opportunities in the adult correctional system and the barriers associated with an adult conviction.
  • Adult correctional institutions are not safe places for young people.  The youth and families JustChildren interviewed recounted numerous stories about victimization and isolation of young people incarcerated with adults.
  • There is a lot of variation in local practice around making certification decisions.  The time and attention paid to the decision to try a youth as an adult often varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  As a result, similar youth charged with similar offenses face extremely dissimilar outcomes based on the jurisdictions in which they are tried.
  • Unequal bargaining power produces unjust results.  Because Commonwealth’s Attorneys have virtually unlimited authority over certification decisions for a wide array of offenses, they have a tremendous amount of bargaining power when it comes to negotiating pleas.  Defense attorneys expressed frustration with how the threat of transfer inhibits their ability to pursue a meaningful defense for their young clients who are facing serious consequences and puts a lot of pressure on youth to plead guilty.

In the report, JustChildren makes recommendations that would give Circuit Court judges more options for returning youth to the juvenile system or for reducing the barriers to reentry posed by an adult conviction.

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An article published in Lynchburg newspaper The News and Advance on Thursday, September 23rd, explains that Shandre Saunders, a teenage who was sentenced last year to serve time in an adult prison, will have his case considered on appeal by the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Court will be addressing the issue of jury sentencing versus judge sentencing in the cases of youth convicted as adults.  For the full text of the article, click here.

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