Let judges decide on sending youths to criminal court


POSTED: Thursday, February 19, 2009

A surge in violent crime by juveniles from the mid-1980s to 1994 prompted many state legislatures to repeal laws directing them to be tried in juvenile courts and instead turn them over to criminal courts to be tried as adults. As those laws now are being questioned, a heinous murder in Hawaii is being cited in an effort to take the Aloha State down that same path.

Judicial waiver once was the only means in the country for transferring juveniles to criminal court, but Hawaii is now among only eight states that have retained that policy in whole. Prosecutorial discretion and automatic referral of youths of certain minimum ages and types of offense to adult criminal court have become the norm. In some states, juveniles charged with certain crimes are sent directly to adult court and must receive waivers to be redirected to juvenile or family court.

The offenses allegedly committed by then 15-year-old Vernon P. Bartley of Ewa Beach of raping and strangling his 51-year-old neighbor Karen Ertell in May 2007 have rightly outraged residents. Bartley had associated with hooligans and engaged in previous criminal activity. Not until last October did Family Court Senior Judge Frances Wong allow Bartley, who was still under 18, to be charged as an adult. The delay further angered many of Ertell's friends and relatives.

A bill now before the Hawaii Legislature, referred to as “;Karen's Law,”; would require a person age 15-17 accused of murder, with a criminal record and no sign of mental problems to be tried as an adult. Because of Wong's waiver, the law change would not affect Bartley, who faces murder charges and, if convicted, a life prison sentence.

Meanwhile, recent research has highlighted crucial differences between adolescent and adult brain functioning that undercuts the “;adult time for adult crime”; rationale, according to a November report by Patrick Griffin of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. The American Bar Association and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have called for a return to judicial discretion in waivers of juvenile offenders to criminal court.

The Justice Department last year reported that laws transferring alleged juvenile offenders to adult courts generally have not resulted in reductions in juvenile crime rates. According to the report, state laws exposing juveniles to such transfers “;have had little or no tendency to deter would-be juvenile criminals,”; Griffin noted.

In addition, Griffin added, juveniles convicted in adult criminal court are more likely to commit other crimes after being released from prison: “;Six well- designed studies, all with large samples ... found higher reoffense rates for those processed in the criminal system, and substantially higher rates for violent offenders prosecuted as adults.”;