New JustChildren Report on Juvenile Transfer Unlocks the Truth Behind Trying Youths As Adults In Virginia
Individuals With Firsthand Knowledge of the Transfer System Share Their Stories
The JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center released a new report 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.
“As I listened to the people affected by transfer, I was struck by the very high hurdles these youth face upon their return to the community. These young people want to work, want to better themselves by getting an education, and want to contribute to their communities by voting or volunteering, but they often can’t. Their adult felony convictions prevent them from doing these things and will continue to be obstacles for the rest of their lives.” Kate Duvall, an attorney with JustChildren and primary author of Unlocking the Truth, comments on her findings while researching for the report.
For the last five years JustChildren has spent extensive time examining Virginia’s system of trying youth as adults, including representing youth at various stages of the transfer process. Unlocking the Truth is the second of two reports examining Virginia’s transfer system. You can find JustChildren’s 2009 report, Don’t Throw Away the Key: Reevaluating Adult Time for Youth Crime in Virginia, along with more information about trying youths as adults, at www.dontthrowawaythekey.org.
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.
Liane Rozzell, the founder and director of Families & Allies of Virginia’s Youth, a grassroots advocacy organization and the parent of a youth confined in the juvenile justice system, hears stories about the problems associated with Virginia’s system of trying youth as adults from families across the state. “I have seen the impact an adult felony conviction has on the youth and families I work with. These youth have trouble finding jobs and getting an education. Labeling a young person, some as young as 14 years old, with an adult felony conviction does nothing to rehabilitate the young person or help them return to the community successfully.” Ms. Rozzell said.
Todd Petit, the Chief Public Defender for Fairfax County, oversees a staff of 5+ attorneys working on juvenile cases and represents youth in one of the busiest jurisdictions in Virginia. He reflects on the process by which the decision to try youth as adults is made, “For a wide variety of offenses, the prosecutor’s decision to try a child as an adult is completely unreviewable by a judge. The unfettered power to send a youth to the adult system means that the threat of transfer is a powerful plea bargaining tool often employed by prosecutors, and we are forced to consider the serious consequences for our clients of being tried as an adult in all strategic decisions in the case.” Mr. Petit also commented, “Resolving this problem is easy: give judges the authority to review the certification decision just like they can with almost every other decision made in our criminal justice system.”
Jennifer Woolard, Ph.D, an Associate Professor of Psychology and Center for Social Justice Research Fellow at Georgetown University, states, “Jails and prisons designed for adults do not have the facilities, staff training, or services to meet the developmental needs of juveniles incarcerated as adults.” Ms. Woolard goes on to comment on the effects of trying youth as adults, “Most studies indicate that trying youth as adults does not reduce recidivism. In fact, these youth may have higher recidivism than comparable youth processed in the juvenile justice system. This increased recidivism may be due to a number of factors, including the negative effect of incarceration in adult jails designed to punish rather than rehabilitate.”
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.
For a copy of Unlocking the Truth or Don’t Throw Away the Key, please call Kate Duvall at 434-977-0553, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Wednesday, October 20th, students, families, community partners, teachers, legislators, advocates and many others came out to the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville for our special event: "Dropped Out: How Our Students' Futures are Lost Every Day." All in all, we packed around 700 people into the theater, finding room up in the balconies when the seats filled up down below.
Emcee John Grisham welcomed the crowd with his usual humor and panache, and introduced a sobering but important part of the evening -- our student presentation, during which kids from Charlottesville, Albemarle and Richmond offered the audience some grim but motivating facts about our school dropout crisis. One by one, these students reminded the crowd of some startling statistics about the unceratin futures that kids who drop out of school must face. Large posters emphasized these numbers, and the youths themselves reminded everyone that behind every statistic is a kid, just like them, who needs our attention.
Following some additional opening remarks and thank-yous from LAJC Executive Director Alex Gulotta, we heard wise words from our special guest, U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott, who reminded us the value and virtue of preventive care. A highlight of Congressman Scott's remarks came when he recited a poem attributed to Joseph Malins from the turn of the 20th century, "The Ambulance in the Valley." The poem reminded us how futile it can be to merely bandage a problem after it happens, rather than spending the time and energy needed to prevent the damage from happening in the first place. Congressman Scott amplified the poem's metaphor by highlighting the great expense of our prisons and jails, versus our spending on educational efforts like early childhood education and dropout prevention.
Next, we screened the documentary "Pushed," a student-produced film shot in Connecticut, where schools face a similar dropout crisis as we do in Virginia. The film highlighted the good, the bad and the ugly that must be faced when it comes to addressing the drop-out crisis. We were also fortunate to welcome a group of the Youth Rights Media filmmakers, who stayed after the event to answer questions and chat with other guests.
Following the film was a panel discussion of our own school drop-out crisis in Virginia. Congressman Scott, UVA Curry School Professor and Youth Violence Project Director Dewey Cornell, JustChildren Director Angela Ciolfi, and Charlottesville Schools Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins offered illuminating comments and fielded compelling questions from the audience on how to improve relationships between schools, parents, and students in order to prevent kids from dropping out of school and suffering the intense and debilitating collateral damage from doing so.
All in all, "Dropped Out" was a great success, and we owe a great deal of thanks to our guests, our Hosts and our Leadership Law Firms for helping to make it happen. And we owe a huge standing ovation to everyone who came out in support of Virginia's students -- showing up for our students is an important step in battling the school dropout crisis, and making sure that our students are 'showing up' for their education, prepared and supported and ready to learn. Thank you!
Click here to check out some great coverage of our event from the C-ville Weekly.