When Children are tried as Adults in Criminal Court

Juveniles are sometimes the perpetrators in major crimes such as murder, rape, armed robbery and other serious offenses. As a result, juveniles may be tried and sentenced as adults in criminal court. When children are tried as adults, emotions may run high.

Children make headlines after committing serious crimes

In November 2012, the criminal case against 13-year-old Tyasia Jackson was transferred to adult court. Tyasia was upset when a neighbor woman, also a co-worker of the children’s mother, called Tyasia’s mother, who was not home, and told her she had seen Tyasia open the door to let a boy into the home. The neighbor, Veronica Hillman, found the boy hiding in a closet and told him to leave.

After Hillman left, Tyasia told three of the four siblings that she was babysitting to go upstairs. Two year-old Sasha Ray stayed downstairs. Tyasia allegedly stabbed her sister in the chest multiple times. She took her sister outside and left her there, cleaned up the blood and changed her clothes. When her parents returned home and Sasha could not be found, everyone began looking for her. It was the neighbor who found Sasha. The parents initially thought that perhaps a dog had attacked her, but the stab wounds were later discovered. Sasha Ray died before her parents could get her to a hospital. Shelton Ray says that Tyasia confessed to murdering Sasha. CBS Atlanta shows Tyasia as she is being escorted by police officers after her arrest.

Georgia is one of the states that has the death penalty, but juveniles are no longer put to death. The minimum sentence, if Tyasia is convicted of a murder charge, is life in prison. As explained by J.M. Heller, Attorney at Law, a charge of murder may be made when an individual illegally kills another person with intent to kill, with depraved disregard for human life or when a person is killed during the course of the commission of another crime, such as armed robbery. If 13-year-old Tyasia Jackson is convicted of murder, the minimum sentence is life in prison. If convicted of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, a lighter sentence, ranging from one to 20 years incarceration, may be imposed.

Alyssa Bustamante told the family of 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten that she was “sorry” for killing Elizabeth and that words cannot describe how “horribly I feel about all of this.” Those words from 18-year-old Bustamante were a far cry from how she said she felt earlier, after killing her neighbor when she was 15. She described having killed little Elizabeth as “an amazing thrill,” according to the Associated Press article, ‘Alyssa Bustamante sentenced in child murder case,‘ published at The Christian Science Monitor.

Bustamante was sentenced to life in prison. While Bustamante does have the possibility of being eligible for parole on the second degree murder conviction, she was also sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for armed criminal action, based on the facts that she slit Elizabeth Olten’s throat and stabbed her with a knife after she first strangled her.

These two cases are representative of the crimes committed by children who are then tried in adult court.

Understanding the process of trying juveniles as adults is helpful

Frontline on PBS describes the three mechanisms by which children may be transferred to be tried in the adult justice system. A “judicial waiver” is when a juvenile court judge waives the case from juvenile court and transfers it to the adult criminal court. This is the most common method for judges to use when transferring a case of a child offender to the adult courts. An increasing number of states are excluding certain crimes from being tried in the juvenile court system or are excluding youthful repeat offenders from being tried in the juvenile justice system upon commission of new crimes. These cases are bound over to the adult criminal courts by “statutory exclusion.” The third mechanism utilized is referred to as a “prosecutorial waiver.” In this instance, several factors result in both the juvenile and adult criminal courts having jurisdiction. The prosecutor decides which court will hear the case.

Looking at considerations for treating children different in the courts is imperative

In 2001, Time asked, ‘Should the Law Treat Kids and Adults Differently?’ While there were many questions in 2001 related to considering whether to try children in adult criminal courts or if they should stay in the juvenile court system, there may be even more questions today. While children have historically been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and even sentenced to death and executed, there is a reversal of that trend today. Still, questions remain about what to do with youthful offenders who commit serious crimes. America may not yet be ready to let juveniles off the hook easily. Time cited an ABC poll in which 55% of Americans believe that the crime and not the age of the offender should determine sentencing. Some individuals believe that trying juveniles in adult courts and implementing harsh sentencing guidelines will be a deterrent for kids who may be thinking of committing crimes. Opponents believe that children do not yet have the capacity to understand the consequences of their actions and should therefore not be tried as an adult.

The Equal Justice Initiative is a strong advocate

On February 4, 2013, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) announced that a new trial had been won for Dante Evans, who was 14 years old when sentenced in adult court to life in prison without the possibility of parole by the State of Mississippi. In 2007, Evans told school officials that his father was beating him and had threatened to kill him. Instead of helping Dante, school personnel told his father. The next day, after Dante arrived at school with visible bruises, a complaint was made to the Department of Human Services, but no action was taken.

Dante Evans shot and killed his father. He was transferred to the adult system and tried as an adult. Evans argued that he shot his father in self-defense. Without considering Dante’s age, lack of prior criminal record and not being permitted to hear the history of extreme abuse that Dante Evans suffered at the hands of his father, the jury convicted him of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. The EJI successfully argued that Dante did not have funds to hire his own expert and that he was eligible to have an expert testify on his behalf to give details of PTSD and how he believed he had to protect himself from his father. Dante Evans has been granted a new trial.

Just two days after the announcement that EJI secured a new trial for Dante Evans, it was announced that a new sentence was won for Kyle Walling. Walling was tried and convicted in adult court for the murder of a 17 year-old boy when Walling was 16 years old, was not the person who shot the boy and in fact, waited several blocks away while his accomplices were robbing the boy of marijuana and killing him. Walling was convicted of felony murder in Florida and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The EJI argued that Walling was denied a fair trial and that his sentence was unconstitutional. In June 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory sentencing of juveniles without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. Kyle Walling’s case was remanded for re-sentencing. Judge William Wright wrote that if life imprisonment was not justified, the lower court judge may sentence him “to any period of years up to forty years.”

The execution of children is now unconstitutional

It was not until 2005 that the execution of juveniles was unconstitutional. After Roper v. Simmons, the Equal Justice Initiative went to work on overturning the death sentences of many children around the country who had been sentenced to death. Prior to Roper, 365 children had been executed after being convicted of crimes. Twenty-two of those executions have taken place since 1985.

When children are tried as adults in criminal courts, many factors must be considered. The mind of a child may not fully comprehend all the aspects of trial and sentencing in adult court. In cases such as Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the United States Supreme Court requires that those who sentence juveniles who have been convicted in adult courts to consider “children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.” Perhaps the trend will be that children are given lighter sentences, opportunity for counseling and education as well as the opportunity to prove their increased maturity and change in thinking patterns in relation to the commission of crimes.