Houston Chronicle Examines Juvenile Waivers to Adult Court

While the unwise policy of trying and punishing juvenile offenders as if they were adults grew in popularity during the nation's "tough on crime" years, laws permitting waiver to adult court still require judges in most cases to make an individualized determination whether waiver is appropriate for a particular child charged with a particular crime. Texas law follows that pattern.

Before certifying a child, juvenile judges are supposed to hold a hearing and review evidence about the seriousness and nature of the offense, a child’s maturity and background, the likelihood of rehabilitation and the need for protection for the community, according to state law.

Those hearings are often time consuming and complex, as dueling experts (including social workers, psychologists, teachers and probation agents) provide the judge with the detailed information needed to make an informed waiver decision. Except in Harris County where, according to a Houston Chronicle investigation, judges routinely rubber-stamp waiver requests after holding 15 minute hearings. [more ...]

The deference that Harris County judges give to prosecution requests for waiver -- more than 90 percent of the requests are granted -- explains why 900 Harris County kids have been sent to adult court in the last ten years.

In 2007 and 2008 alone, Harris County juvenile judges transferred 160 teens’ cases to the adult system — more than nine of the largest urban counties in Texas combined, according to a Chronicle analysis of statewide certifications by county.

It's possible that teenagers in Harris County are more likely to commit serious offenses, or less likely to have the parental and community support that often convinces judges of a kid's potential for rehabilitation, than teenagers in the rest of the state. It's also possible, as University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus suggests, that court-appointed lawyers in Harris County don't make a strong effort to resist the rubber-stamping. Those explanations don't explain why Harris County judges feel comfortable with cursory hearings and with preprinted waiver orders that parrot identical findings in nearly every case.

Attorney Christene Wood ... said that during [a family friend's] hearing last year the juvenile judge surfed the Internet, laughed and never once made eye contact with the boy. “The certification process here is an absolute joke,” Wood said.

A Houston Chronicle editorial urges the county's reform-minded district attorney, Pat Lykos, to add excessive reliance on juvenile waivers to the list of troubling prosecutorial practices she needs to address. The county's judges and defense lawyers should also understand that they need to start doing a better job.

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    Torn... (none / 0) (#1)
    by WeaponX on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 04:02:56 PM EST
    I'm always torn on the kids tried as adults, god knows I got into some trouble when I was a juvenile, issue and think it certainly has to be viewed case by case. Anyone committing a violent sex act or murder should be tried as an adult because these are things people raised in any circumstances know to be wrong. I heard a story yesterday about a 16 year old raping and beating to death an 18 month old baby and it about made me sick to my stomach. Would you still view his being tried as an adult wrong?

    Yes. (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by TChris on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 04:42:29 PM EST
    Because he isn't an adult, and we shouldn't pretend that children are adults. The question isn't whether a juvenile knows the difference between right and wrong or how awful the crime is but whether a child, who hasn't yet developed an adult mind (complete with reasoning, impulse control, and a full appreciation of consequences), should be held to the same standard of culpability as an adult.  The first link in the post above will take you to another post discussing this issue, and the links in that post will take you to some of the current research on brain development.  Reading the research findings may help you resolve your conflicted feelings.

    SOme kids act like adults (none / 0) (#7)
    by nyjets on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 06:41:19 PM EST
    There are kids that I have met that are remarkable mature for there ages. I have met adults that act like 3 year olds. The fact is that it is possible for a kid to basically be an adult. If a child commits violent acts like rape and murder, he or she should not automaically be treated like a juvenile. THe case should be examined and the courts should determine where the kid shold be tried.
    Furthermore, being a kid should NOT be a free pass to commit crimes. Lets be honest, by automatically treating all kids who commited crimes as juvenile, you are giving them a free pass to commit crimes. ANd not just minor crimes, this would also include crimes of murder. LIke the criminal who rapes and murdered a baby. THat kid should be locked up for life for what he did.

    Reminds me of something I learned (none / 0) (#8)
    by oculus on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 06:47:47 PM EST
    s a DDA assigned to juvenile court.  Kids admitted they wanted to steal a car before the kid turned 18 as they knew the first offense would get them a short period of monitoring by a juvenile probation officer or nothing at all. Not that I think a juvenile who steals a car could or should be tried as an adult.

    ignorance (none / 0) (#9)
    by txpublicdefender on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 06:55:25 PM EST
    This is ridiculous.  Children tried for serious felonies in Texas as juveniles can still be sentenced to a decades-long prison sentence.  The only difference is that when they turn 21, the case is reviewed to see if it is appropriate to release them at that age, or whether they should be held in an adult facility for the remainder of their sentence.

    Being tried as a juvenile is not getting to commit free crimes.

    And I will also tell you that, in my experience as a juvenile public defender in Washington, juveniles who have committed sex crimes are FAR less likely to commit new crimes of any kind later on in life if they are either treated in the community or in the juvenile "prison" system than they are if they are declined to adult court and sentenced as adult offenders.  A lot of research backs this up as well.


    He may not be an adult (none / 0) (#11)
    by wagnert in atlanta on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 09:44:36 PM EST
    and I don't know what the age of majority is in Louisiana, but he's 17 years old (here is the Times-Picayune story.)  He apparently beat the baby over a considerable period of time "because it wouldn't stop crying," then tore its anus trying to clean it up.  Yup.  But it's all good, he'll learn impulse control and appreciation of consequences sometime in the next one to four years (18-21).  I just hope it's in Angola, not in juvie, since he doesn't seem to have appreciated the consequences of the crimes he's already committed.

    I've never heard of a waiver and (none / 0) (#2)
    by oculus on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 04:19:16 PM EST
    doubt very much it exists in CA.  That being sd., why would anyone willing waive the protections of the juvenile system?

    The prosecution asks for the waiver, (none / 0) (#5)
    by TChris on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 04:46:24 PM EST
    not the defense.  The defense almost always wants to keep the juvenile in juvenile court.  Saying that the juvenile is "waived" into adult court is probably a misnomer ("transferred" would be less confusing) but it's the word that's commonly used.

    Got it. Extensive hearing in front of (none / 0) (#6)
    by oculus on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 04:59:03 PM EST
    juvenile judge in CA IF the statutory criteria for trial as an adult are pleaded by the DA's office; each side puts on evidence, including experts; then the judge decides.  

    forget empathy in judges (none / 0) (#4)
    by Jen M on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 04:43:32 PM EST
    How about some minimal ethics. At least a work ethic.

    I'm sure (none / 0) (#10)
    by Zorba on Tue Jun 09, 2009 at 07:07:47 PM EST
    that trying juveniles as adults is way, way over-used, not just in Harris County.  My problem is, though, what do you do with the "broken" kids, the kids who show every evidence of being, for instance, sociopaths?  Put them in the juvenile system, and they are likely to get out on the streets when they are 18 or 21.  Yet it does not seem appropriate to try them as adults and put them in adult prisons.  Rehabilitation services are very far from adequate in either the juvenile or adult justice systems.  And even if they were, as I said above, how do you identify the irredeemably sociopathic? The future Ted Bundys or Jeffrey Dahmers?  I don't have an answer, and I wish I did.  I do know that too many kids go into the justice system, whether juvenile or adult, and come out much worse than when they went in.  Our justice system is designed more for punishment and revenge than for rehabilitation, and we need to address this.    

    The reason society pushes for (none / 0) (#12)
    by MyLeftMind on Thu Jun 11, 2009 at 12:20:58 PM EST
    trying kids as adults is because even though they can receive sentences extending into adulthood, many of them have been and will continue to be released when they are 21. Since many of those youth have gone on to commit more violent crimes, there is a public push to prevent their release. Trying them as an adult is simply a response to a broken system that can't tell if someone is really rehabilitated.

    Fix that problem, and both sides will get what they want: Treatment for violent youth instead of incarceration with adults that makes them worse, and continued confinement of criminals that simply can't be rehabilitated. Perhaps an interim solution would be to try them as adults, then incarcerate them in less hostile surroundings and provide treatment until they are an adult, at which time they would be transferred to an adult facility. At least then they are given opportunities to complete that brain development and impulse control while they're still underage, but society retains its protect against violent youth, and today's youth realize they don't get a get out of jail free card when they turn 21.