How Often Do Judges Approve Transfers? In Big Cities, Little is Known

Kudos to Lise Olsen and whoever else pitched in at the Houston Chronicle to produce last month’s article on the transfer of juveniles to adult court in Harris County (we can’t find it online anywhere now, so here is the ever-informative Grits for Breakfast’s summary and analysis of the story. Harris County has transferred 900 youths over the past decade, and  transferred a total of 162 youths in 2007 and 2008, more than the combined number of all the other Texas counties with big cities, including Dallas, Bexar (San Antonio) and Tarrant (Fort Worth and Arlington).

What caught our eye, though, was not the total number of transfers. It was the rate at which judges approved requests for those transfers: just over 90 percent.

University of Houston law professor Ellen Marrus, an expert in juvenile law, indicated to Olsen that two groups are to blame: the judges, who she said rubber-stamp most requests, and court-appointed lawyers who don’t  “bother to work up the case.”

That has to be discouraging for people who believe that the decision to certify youths as adults is better left in a judge’s hands, a bloc that is generally not a fan of prosecutorial direct files to adult court. But in Houston, it appears that a judicial review process to protect against overzealous transfers made little difference.

The story got JJ Today wondering: what’s going on in the other big cities? We took a look at the current relationship between prosecutors and judges when it comes to transfers in other heavily populated cities. What we mainly wanted to know was, how often are judges reviewing requests to transfer, and how many times are they approving them?

Here is the list of biggest cities in the country: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, San Francisco,  Columbus [Ohio], Austin, Fort Worth, Memphis, Charlotte and Baltimore.

That list tells you a lot about how important it is for California and Texas to have functional JJ processes: six of the 10 biggest cities are there!

Here’s what we were able to find out:

*In New York and Detroit, there is no situation where prosecutors can move cases from juvenile court into adult court. Any time a juvenile is tried as an adult, it’s because the crime he or she is charged with constitutes and automatic transfer.

*Charlotte Assistant District Attorney Greg McCall said the rate of transfer requests accepted by judges is not something his office tracks. But it is probably a high rate of acceptance now, he said, because the judges’ scrutiny over the years has caused McCall’s office not to bother attempting transfers on cases they would move if it was completely up to him.

“If it’s not homicide, armed robbery or rape, we’re not even gonna try,” McCall said. “Our experience is, it’s not going to get transferred” in any other instance.

*San Francisco Chief Probation Officer William Sifferman was kind enough to provide us with the city’s figures from March of 2006 through this month. During that time period, prosecutors made motions to transfer juveniles to adult court 82 times, and 16 are pending, Of the 66 motions acted on, judges approved the transfers in 18 cases, prosecutors withdrew their transfer motions 23 times, and dismissed the initial charges another seven times. On the remaining 18 motions, judges decided to keep the juvenile in juvenile court. So San Francisco juvenile judges approved transfers exactly as many times as they rejected them between 2006 and now. 

*The vast majority of the biggest cities either don’t know, or were not forthcoming in regard to how many times judges decided on transfer of a juvenile to adult court. We received no information response from: Santa Clara County (San Jose), Calif., Memphis, Los Angeles,

Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Ft. Worth and Baltimore.

It’s possible that some of these cities have zero instances where judges must sign off on transfers, as with Detroit and New York. But the reality is, plenty of these cities do have circumstances in which judges are making the final decision on a juvenile’s jurisdictional fate; and nobody is keeping an eye on the long-term trends of what judges are doing with those cases.

That is disappointing, said Liz Ryan of the Campaign for Youth Justice. Her organization isn’t in support of any juvenile getting transferred over, but if they must, she said judicial transfers are better than the other two basic options: sentencing guidelines that make it automatic and sole prosecutorial discretion (15 states are in that category). Guidelines offer no human bias but are rigid, and there is plenty of fear by advocates that prosecutors will seek out transfers  that help  them career-wise.

Judges, in theory, would have less personal motive to transfer youths, and would be able to consider the circumstances of individual cases. But not if, as some suspect happened in Houston, approving transfer hearings becomes a perfunctory exercise of the juvenile court.

If you have any additional info on transfer trends in these cities, chime in!


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