On July 23, 1995, an intruder brutally attacked and stabbed Janet Downing approximately 100 times in her Somerville home. The revolting Downing murder and ensuing arrest of Edward O’Brien Jr. , a 15-year-old juvenile whom prosecutors say committed the heinous crime, sent shockwaves through the state.
When Somerville District Court Judge Paul P. Hefferman ruled that the Commonwealth try Mr. O’Brien as a juvenile, those shockwaves grew in intensity, and the citizens of Massachusetts, fed up with increasing youth violence and perceptions of an ineffective uvenile justice system, demanded the enactment of tough new laws to deal with repeat and violent juvenile offenders.
The Great and General Court of Massachusetts headed these demands for reform of the juvenile justice system and enacted legislation that, among other things, abolishes the trial de novo system in the juvenile courts, requires the trial of juveniles charged with murder, manslaughter, aggravated rape, forcible rape of a child, kidnaping, assault with intent to rob or murder and armed burglary in adult court and permits prosecutors to open o the public juvenile proceedings when they seek an adult sentence.
Although proponents tout these measures as a sagacious solution for the vexatious problem of juvenile delinquency, abolishing the trial de novo system, providing for automatic adult trials and opening juvenile proceedings to the public when prosecutors seek an adult sentence works to the detriment, not the benefit, of juveniles and society. Therefore, the policy makers of Massachusetts should repeal most sections of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act and develop other policies to deal with the rising problem of juvenile crime.
Proponents of a single trial system for juveniles argue that the trial de novo system wastes judicial resources by giving defendants a second bite at the apple and traumatizes victims and witnesses by forcing them to testify at two proceedings. However, these proponents fail to acknowledge that the de novo system allows judges to quickly provide juveniles with the rehabilitative help they need. The proponents, unsurprisingly, also fail to acknowledge that a single trial system may place a greater burden on judicial resources and a similar burden on victims and witnesses.
The de novo system benefits juveniles by encouraging bench trials, which frequently result in the swift administration of rehabilitative help. For many juveniles, delinquency is a reaction to a variety of situational stressors. Statistics indicate that the vast majority of juvenile delinquents are exposed to abuse and neglect, harsh or erratic parenting, and socioeconomic deprivation. Experts believe that if the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate juveniles and make them productive members of our society, it must address these problems as swiftly as possible.
A de novo system encourages juveniles, many of hom want judicial help, to request a bench trial. Likewise, under a de novo system, defense attorneys are encouraged to recommend an initial bench trial because the court’s decision does not bind clients if it is not in their interest. On the other hand, a single trial system discourages juveniles and defense attorneys from requesting a bench trial. Because jury trials are more lengthy than bench trials and may drag out for over a year, the current policy of encouraging juveniles to seek an initial jury trial denies them the rehabilitative help they need for a significant period of time.
Therefore, the de novo system is the preferred choice when dealing with juveniles because it encourages bench trials and, concomitantly, the swift administration of rehabilitative help. As noted earlier, one of the primary arguments for doing away with the de novo system is that it wastes judicial resources. However, upon closer examination one realizes that the de novo system actually furthers judicial economy. Under a de novo system, procedural safeguards can be done away with or relaxed at bench trials without fear of violating rights of defendants.
Courts have found the elimination of rocedural safeguards at bench trials in a de novo system to be constitutional because the judiciary will extend all safeguards to the defendant at a new jury trial if he/she so chooses. Although no statistics could be found which indicate the number of defendants appealing de novo bench trial decision, a court employee estimates that it was around 3%. Thus, 97% of juvenile cases were disposed of through bench trials, which are less costly and time consuming than jury trials.
While 3% of the cases resulted in two proceedings, the value obtained from bench trials appears to significantly outweigh the costs ncurred by appeals. Therefore, the de novo system may actually further judicial economy more than a single trial system. The other primary argument for a single trial system is that making victims and witnesses testify at two trials is unfair. The 3% estimate that the de novo system requires that victims and witnesses testify at two trials very infrequently. Furthermore, replacing the de novo system will not eliminate the need for requiring some victims and witnesses to testify at two trials.
Appellate courts have the power to reverse a trial court’s decision and order a new trial. In cases where the trial court’s decision is reversed, victims and witnesses must testify again. Given the strong state interest in reforming juveniles, protecting society and conserving judicial resources and the fact that a one trial system also requires some victims and witnesses to testify twice, the burden placed on witnesses and victims by the de novo system cannot be considered unreasonable. In sum, the de novo trial system better suits the needs of juvenile offenders, society and the court system for several reasons.
First, under the de novo system, judges can expeditiously provide the ehabilitative help that juveniles need. Secondly, the de novo system does not appear to burden judicial economy. In fact, despite proponents’ claims to the contrary, the evidence appears to indicate that a de novo system actually furthers judicial economy. Finally, although a slight burden is placed on those victims and witnesses who are forced to testify at two proceeding, this burden exists in a one trial system and is outweighed by the strong state interest in rehabilitating juveniles, protecting society and conserving judicial resources.
Besides eliminating the de novo system, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act lso provides for the automatic trial of juveniles charged with murder, manslaughter, aggravated rape of a child, assault with intent to rob or murder and armed robbery in adult court. The automatic trial provision is unnecessary in light of new procedures that provide for a post-trial amenability to rehabilitation determination. Moreover, automatically treating certain juveniles as adults goes against the traditional purposes of the juvenile system, and, ultimately, poses a greater risk to society when correctional authorities release the offender.
The provision providing for automatic trial in adult court of juveniles harged with murder, manslaughter, aggravated rape of a child, assault with intent to rob or murder and armed robbery in adult court is unwarranted in light of additional provisions contained within the Juvenile Justice Reform Act that eliminate pretrial transfer hearings and replace them with post-trial amenability to rehabilitation hearings.
Scott Harshbarger, the Attorney General of Massachusetts and author of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, states that the automatic transfer provision is necessary to address the “the time-consuming and burdensome nature of the transfer hearing process. In other words, Mr. Harshbarger advocates treating juveniles as adults in certain cases because it is too much of a bother to conduct a pretrial hearing to determine whether the juvenile is amenable to rehabilitation.
Mr. Harshbarger’s position is especially confusing in light of the provision in the Juvenile Justice Reform Act that supplants pretrial transfer hearings with post-trial amenability to rehabilitation hearings. Under the new system, the legislature has eliminated pretrial transfer hearings in juvenile court and mandated that the court hold trials first. If the juvenile is found guilty at the trial, the court holds a post trial amenability hearing in conjunction with the sentencing heating.
Once the court makes a determination as to whether the juvenile is amenable to rehabilitation, the judge can impose three possible sentences: (1) an adult sentence; (2) a juvenile sentence; or (3) commit the juvenile to the Department of Youth Services until he/she reaches the age of twenty-one. As the legislature has eliminated the burdensome nature of the transfer process, Mr. Harshbarger’s rationale for the automatic trial provision makes no sense.
Moreover, the adult trial provision effectively denies juveniles charged with certain crimes rehabilitation opportunities and defies common sense by transferring juveniles out of the juvenile system where an adult sentence may be imposed by a judge who is familiar with the needs of juveniles to the adult criminal system where judges are not familiar with the needs of juveniles. In addition to being unnecessary in light of the elimination of transfer hearings in the juvenile justice system, the automatic trial provision contradicts the traditional philosophy of the juvenile justice system.
The fundamental principle upon which the founders based the juvenile justice system is that juveniles are different from adults and need different treatment. Throughout its history, the juvenile justice system has strived to uphold this principle by providing benevolent and less formal means than adult courts for dealing with the unique problems of juvenile offenders. For instance, juvenile courts typically subscribed to the philosophy of rehabilitation, rather than punishment, and closed proceedings to the public to protect juveniles from harmful stigma.
Massachusetts, in providing for the automatic trial in adult ourt of juveniles charged with certain crimes, moves away from the traditional benevolent, rehabilitative philosophy of the juvenile justice system and toward a retributive or “just desserts” philosophy. Critics dismiss this contention, stating a judge in the adult court still has the authority to impose a juvenile sentence on the offender.
However, given the adult criminal court’s goal of punishment and lack of experience with juveniles, a judge is likely to impose a juvenile sentence only in the rarest of cases. Moving away from the traditional philosophy of the juvenile justice ystem by automatically treating certain juveniles as adults increases their propensity for crime and increases the risk to society. Studies indicate that juveniles tried as adults typically do not receive longer or more severe sentences than those juveniles tried in the juvenile court.
The studies also suggest that juveniles tried as adults have a higher rate of recidivism than those juveniles with like profiles who are charged with similar offenses and tried in the juvenile justice system. The higher rate of recidivism for juveniles tried as adults is likely the result of their being released into society undereducated, nsocialized, unemployable and in their physical prime. In other words, the adult criminal system sets juveniles up for failure by making them into the very model of what we wish to avoid.
Therefore, if one truly values public safety, he/she should not support automatic transfers to adult court for certain juveniles because they will eventually return to society and, in most cases, to crime. To recap, the automatic trial as adult provision contained within the Juvenile Justice Reform Act is unnecessary, contradicts the traditional notions of the juvenile justice system and jeopardizes public safety. The abolishment of transfer hearings and creation of post-trial amenability hearings has eliminated the need for automatic transfer to a court.
Additionally, the adult transfer provision counters the benevolent, rehabilitative philosophy of the juvenile justice system by shipping juveniles whom society can rehabilitate to the punishment oriented adult criminal court. Finally, the policy of treating juveniles as adults is likely to backfire because they eventually return to the streets undereducated, unsocialized, unemployable and in their physical prime, which often results in a return to a life of crime.