An interesting decision was handed down by the New Mexico State Court of Appeals last week concerning juveniles transferred to adult courts. The appeals court declared the process used by the state to expose juvenile offenders to adult sentences to be unconstitutional, and required that juries be assembled to make determinations on what youth could face adult time.
That certainly caught the eye of JJ Today. Juries handling hearings that determine who can and cannot be handled within the JJ system? Those transfers happen in almost every state, so would a massive change in one state establish some precedent for others? It's hard to say for sure, but speaking to people on the ground in New Mexico leads us to believe that the state has a unique transfer procedure.
Most states hold a transfer hearing at the outset of a case, so if a youth is transferred he will never face adjudication for the crime in juvenile court. Once transferred to adult court, the juvenile is treated like any other adult defendant and can plead guilty or face trial, where he can be convicted or found not guilty.
In New Mexico, there are three classifications of juveniles: delinquent offenders (charged with low-level crimes and status offenses), youthful offenders and serious youthful offenders (only those charged with first-degree murder). Delinquent offenders are dealt with completely within the JJ system and serious youthful offenders are all handled in adult court.
For those in the youthful offender category, prosecutors can make a motion to hold an "amenability hearing" after the youth has been adjudicated delinquent, the juvenile equivalent of "guilty", in juvenile court. At the amenability hearing, a judge decides whether the juvenile is amenable to the treatment and development available within the JJ framework.
If a judge find a child is not amenable, no adult trial takes place. Instead, the juvenile judge can impose a sentence that is anywhere within the range of the JJ and the adult guidelines for the crimes that were committed.
So (and this is completely hypothetical) let's say a youthful offender pleads guilty in juvenile court to carjacking someone with a firearm. The JJ sentence for the crime would be two years; the adult sentence would be 30 years. If the judge determines a youth not amenable to rehabilitation in the juvenile system, the youth could be sentenced to anything from two to 30 years in the adult system.
It is the sort of discretion on sentencing we mentioned last week in the Weekly Notes. An Indiana judge transferred 13-year-old Blade Reed to adult court because she agreed with prosecutors that the juvenile sentence of five years wouldn't be long enough (assuming the child was convicted). But now that it's in adult court, the minimum Reed would do if convicted is 45 years.
Under New Mexico law, the judge could have adjudicated Reed in juvenile court, determined him not amenable to JJ treatment, and given Reed something in between five and 45 years.
Anyway, the New Mexico Court of Appeals, the state's second highest court, ruled Friday in The State of New Mexico v Rudy B that the juvenile judge should not be making the decision on amenability. In Rudy Barela's case, he received 25 years for a shooting that would have got him about three years in the juvenile system.
The opinion is a hefty 46 pages, but it boils down to this: the hearing constitutes new facts coming into evidence, about the circumstances of the youth's home life and mental health, and the outcome can dictate the imposition of an adult sentence.
That makes complete sense from a constitutional standpoint. Basically, the amenability hearing dictates whether a youth could receive adult years, which he would receive without the benefit of an adult (jury impaneled) trial.
But is it a good thing that juries will be making decisions on which youths can and cannot be helped within the JJ framework? And would changing the system to put the transfer hearing before the juvenile trial be better? Those are entirely different questions.
Juvenile Law Center Chief Counsel Marsha Levick, who filed an amicus brief in support of Rudy, said she believes New Mexico juries can be more objective in weighing the factors that contribute to amenability.
"We're aiming for the fairest, most accurate and reliable way to make the determination," Levick said. And in the relatively small communities overseen by judges, it's highly possible some of them could form opinions about youths that would cloud their assessment at the hearings.
We do know that, mostly because of plea agreements, very few cases actually get to the point of an amenability hearing. A total 160 motions for hearings were filed in 2008. Sixteen remain pending, but of the other 144, only nine resulted in youths receiving adult years.