Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Violent Crime and Juvenile Justice: Lessons for China and the United States (Part 2 of 2)

Following “Violent Crime and Juvenile Justice: Lessons for China and the United States Part I,” Part II explores the states of California and South Dakota, characterized by their “mid-high” to “high” juvenile confinement rates. Do lower juvenile confinement rates guarantee more lenient policies regarding juvenile waiver into adult court?

Number of Inmates Serving Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Crimes Committed as Juveniles


Data taken from July 2015 study “No Hope: Re-Examining Lifetime Sentences for Juvenile Offenders.” Source: Philips Black.

The US is also dealing with the issue of violent crimes committed by juveniles 15 and under, with perhaps the most famous case being the “Slender Man” incident in Wisconsin, in which two 12-year-old female defendants stabbed a classmate repeatedly and were charged with attempted homicide. Because these cases are highly complex, this article conducts in-depth case studies comparing different state approaches to high profile felonies committed by juveniles 15 and younger, similar to the Slender Man case. Two case studies involve female juvenile defendants, and two involve males. Chinese officials considering policy reforms aimed at curbing violence among very young juveniles might draw important lessons from these state-level US cases.

California: Mid-High Confinement Rate (173-366.5 per 100,000)

Facts: Female defendant, Sarah Weeden, who was 14 at the time of the crime, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for the murder of Navnil Chand, killed by gunshot by 23-year-old Sertice Melonson. The crime occurred in August 2005. According to testimony at Weeden’s 2008 trial, Weeden agreed to meet Chand at a park for a date and directed him there by cellphone. When he arrived, Melonson waited to rob him. During the robbery, Melonson shot and killed Chand. In April 2017, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Weeden’s conviction and remanded her for a new trial, finding that Weeden’s trial attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to have Weeden evaluated by a psychologist to determine her capacity to form criminal intent. Weeden might be re-tried in juvenile court.

Law and Policies: California has three ways that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults:

  1. Statutory Exclusion: California has a list of offenses, which if committed by a youth aged 14 or older, require that the youth be criminally prosecuted as an adult. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 602(b);
  2. Discretionary Judicial Waiver: The juvenile court has original jurisdiction over most juvenile cases, but in certain delineated cases where the child is at least 16 years old at the time of the offense, the state may request that the juvenile court transfer jurisdiction to adult criminal court. The juvenile court must conduct a hearing and consider statutorily listed factors to determine whether to transfer jurisdiction. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 707;
  3. Once an Adult, Always an Adult: California has a set procedure by which if a juvenile has been adjudicated, and certain criteria are met, all future charges against them will be automatically prosecuted in adult criminal court. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 707.01.

Defendants Waived Into Adult Court? Weeden appears to have been processed automatically in adult trial court pursuant to the “statutory exclusion” provisions above. Weeden’s appellate attorney notes that prosecutors filed directly in Superior Court (i.e., “adult court”) because it was a murder case, without consideration of factors such as Weeden’s age, maturity level, or mental health. Jurors found Weeden guilty of first-degree murder as an aider and abettor to Melonson, and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne G. Gilliard sentenced her to 27 years to life in prison.

South Dakota: High Rate of Juvenile Confinement (366.5-560 per 100,000)

Facts: In 2000, a jury convicted Daniel Charles of first-degree murder in the sniper killing of his stepfather, Duane Ingalls. Charles was 14 at the time of the crime. Charles was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP), despite the fact that such sentences were largely ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2012. In March 2017, Charles was resentenced to a 92-year sentence, a decision that was upheld by the South Dakota Supreme Court.

Law and Policies: South Dakota has three ways that juveniles can be prosecuted as adults:

  1. Discretionary waiver: for any felony; there is no minimum age requirement. S.D. Codified Laws § 26-11-4;
  2. Statutory Exclusion: required for youth age 16 and older accused of class A, B, C, 1, or 2 felonies. S.D. Codified Laws § 26-11-3.1;
  3. Once an Adult, Always an Adult (if convicted of the offense): S.D. Codified Laws § 26-11-4.

Defendant Waived Into Adult Court? It appears that Charles was waived into adult court based on the “discretionary waiver” provisions listed above.

Figure 1. Selected Non-custodial Measures for Women in Prison in US States

State Confinement Rate, 2013 (per 100,000 juveniles) Defendant Age, Sex, Crime State Laws on Waiver into Adult Court Case Prosecuted in Adult Court?
Wisconsin 109.5-173 12-year-old girl defendants; attempted homicide, stabbing WI law requires children as young as 10 to be charged as adults for homicide crimes Yes
Massachusetts 46-109.5 15-year-old boy defendant; homicide, stabbing Juveniles 14 and older accused of homicide are automatically tried as adults Yes
California 173-366.5 14-year-old girl defendant; homicide, gunshot (participant) Mandatory adult court jurisdiction for violent crimes committed by person 14 or older Yes
South Dakota 366.5-560 14-year-old defendant, homicide, gunshot Discretionary waiver Yes; defendant sentenced to LWOP in 2000, later commuted to 92 years

Reforming Juvenile Sentencing Standards

While the case studies and data presented above are subject to multiple interpretations, the case studies curiously display little correlation between confinement rate and waiver into adult court jurisdiction laws. Where a trend can be identified is in the relationship between high confinement rates and the severity of punishment (as exemplified in the South Dakota case).

Juvenile justice policy reformers have tended to assume that limiting adult court jurisdiction for very young juvenile offenders will help limit unnecessary juvenile confinement. In extremely serious cases involving very young defendants, however, it appears that juvenile court jurisdiction is almost never an option. The two states with the lowest juvenile confinement rates in the case study have the most restrictive laws in favor of trying very young, violent juveniles in adult criminal court: Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Rather than focusing on waiver into adult court in these cases, perhaps juvenile justice reformers should place more emphasis on reforming juvenile sentencing standards and providing defendants with mental health evaluations.

The case study comparison suggests that harsh penalties, rather than mandatory adult court jurisdiction, might co-occur more significantly with high juvenile confinement rates. After all, the state with the highest juvenile confinement rate in the case study, South Dakota, also dealt the harshest penalty: Daniel Charles, the 14-year-old defendant in the South Dakota case, was tried in adult court without a mental health evaluation and was sentenced to life without parole. Even following US Supreme Court criticism of life sentences for juveniles in 2012, the South Dakota court still provided Charles only a nominal commutation to his sentence, reducing the life sentence to a term of 92 years in prison, allowing Charles no chance at parole until he is 60 years old. Further, it appears that only in the bizarre Slender Man case in Wisconsin were the defendants given a mental health evaluation before adjudication. In California, this omission resulted in the reversal of the defendant’s conviction. Increased attention to a defendant’s mental health status might also lower pressure on judges to impose long prison sentences on very young juveniles, thereby reducing the overall rate of confinement in the US.