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Transfers to adult court have serious implications for juvenile defendants
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Transfers to adult court have serious implications for juvenile defendants

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Many factors — including any prior criminal record, intellectual disability or mental illness — could play into whether a 14-year-old boy charged with the murder of a 13-year-old girl in Henrico County will be tried as an adult.

A hearing on the matter has been set before Henrico Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Stacy E. Lee for Nov. 22. Such transfer decisions are made under a state law aimed at balancing the lesser culpability of juveniles and their potential for reform, with protecting the public.

November’s transfer hearing, which Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor sought this month, will not be open to the public.

At stake for the youth is whether the maximum punishment if he is convicted will be confinement up to the age of 21 if he is tried in the juvenile system, or life in prison if he is tried as an adult.

He is charged with the March 26 murder of Lucia Bremer, a Quioccasin Middle School student. He also faces felony charges of attempted murder, threatening to shoot up a school and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and misdemeanor charges of brandishing a firearm and possession of a firearm by a minor.

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Andrew Block, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and the director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice from 2014 to 2019, said, “Cases like these are in many ways the hardest cases because you [often] have the adult-like nature of what the child has done but also the fact that they are still very young.”

“That adult system is not good at rehabilitating kids,” Block added.

Block said that in general, trying kids that young as adults should be a last resort, if at all.

“But, obviously given the seriousness of the allegations, it’s not surprising that the commonwealth attorney is taking this approach,” whether one agrees with it or not, Block said.

Any youth 14 or older charged with a felony is technically available to be tried as an adult, Block said.

“If a prosecutor wants to try you as an adult, they have to file a motion to transfer the case to circuit court,” he said.

In those cases, the judge holds a hearing looking at the alleged offenses and evidence about the child’s maturity, background, any mental health or education issues or disabilities, any previous contact with the judicial system and other relevant factors, Block said. Either side can appeal the judge’s decision.

If the youth is 16 or older and charged with murder or aggravated malicious wounding, the judge is required to hold a preliminary hearing. If probable cause is found, the judge must certify the case to a grand jury for trial as an adult.

If the defendant is 16 and older and charged with other serious felonies such as malicious wounding or robbery, then a commonwealth’s attorney may move to certify the case to circuit court.

“Sometimes that’s called prosecutorial discretion and in those cases all that the juvenile court does — much like with the murder and aggravated malicious wounding case — is essentially hold a prelim hearing,” Block said. If probable cause is found, the judge must certify those charges, he said.

If the defendant is convicted as an adult, a circuit court judge can either impose a sentence in the juvenile system, with the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice; a sentence in the adult system, with the Virginia Department of Corrections; or a blended sentence with confinement terms in both systems.

Judges also have the ability to impose an adult sentence but suspend the time on the condition that the youth successfully completes their juvenile sentence, Block said.

Taylor said this month that one of her concerns that led her to seek a transfer to adult court for the 14-year-old defendant was to make sure he received the services needed for his sake and the sake of public safety.

Among the factors the law requires a judge to consider is whether the juvenile can be kept in the juvenile justice system long enough for effective treatment and rehabilitation and the appropriateness and availability of services in both the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems for dealing with the juvenile’s problems.

Block said, “Young people, including those who are accused of committing the most serious offenses, still have great potential for rehabilitation and turning their lives around. The juvenile court has the ability to sentence youth as serious juvenile offenders in cases like these where they can stay in the juvenile justice system potentially until the age of 21.”

“Reasonable people can disagree whether that’s a long enough time for punishment for something so serious but, in terms of trying to rehabilitate someone — especially someone so young — it [is likely] enough time,” he said.

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Available data indicates juvenile transfers to adult court are generally in decline. The most recent study was completed in 2018 by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. It shows the number of juvenile offenders convicted in circuit courts in the state dropped from 412 in fiscal year 2010 to 237 in fiscal year 2017.

And the number of juvenile felony complaints fell almost 33%, from 12,621 in fiscal year 2011 to 8,469 in fiscal year 2020. The number of serious misdemeanors dropped 47%, from 31,420 to 16,599, during the same time period, according to figures from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice.

State police figures show an uptick in the number of murder offenders 17 and younger from 33 in 2018 to 44 last year.

Julie McConnell, a former juvenile prosecutor in Richmond and now a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said, “I hope that’s just a random anomaly.”

McConnell and her students also represent juvenile clients in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield.

“They are having so few new juvenile delinquency cases come in, they don’t have a lot of cases to give me to do pro bono, which is great,” she said.

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