Oregon Considers “Age and Sophistication” of Youth before Treating As Adults
In May, the Oregon Supreme Court made an exemplary decision when they reversed a 2015 ruling made by the state’s Court of Appeals in the State v. J.C.N.-V. case. In State v. J.C.N.-V., the appeals court upheld the initial decision to transfer a 13 year old, J.C.N.-V, who was charged with aggravated murder, from juvenile court to circuit court for criminal prosecution. State law in Oregon permits the juvenile court to waive its jurisdiction and hand over cases to the jurisdiction of the circuit court if it finds the youth to be of “sufficient sophistication and maturity to appreciate the nature and quality of the conduct involved.” This happened to J.C.N.-V., whose case was originally transferred to the circuit court for criminal prosecution, and whose transfer was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
Enter Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel at Juvenile Law Center, and Angela Sherbo, J.C.N.-V.’s attorney from Youth, Rights, and Justice. They successfully argued a reversal of the transfer in the state’s Supreme Court, which responded with an avowal that the “sophistication and maturity” of a child is too simplistic a measure for determining whether a transfer from juvenile court to circuit court is warranted. The Court urged the legislature to use a more nuanced approach in dictating the guidelines for any potential transfers.
A couple weeks after this decision, District Attorney of Oregon’s Multnomah County, Rod Underhill, announced that his office will no longer automatically prosecute teens ages 15 to 17 in circuit court for certain Measure 11crimes. Unlike the defendant in State v J.C.N.-V., children charged with Measure 11 crimes do not have the benefit of a hearing before a juvenile court judge; instead they are automatically prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. Furthermore, if convicted, they serve the same mandatory sentences that would apply to adults; however, they can begin serving their sentence in a youth prison until they are age 25.
District Attorney Underhill has agreed that if certain considerations are met, his office will be willing to start some Measure 11 cases in juvenile court. Examples of these considerations include: Whether the teen has no past criminal record, whether he or she didn’t seriously hurt anyone, or whether he or she wants to get treatment or turn his or her life around. Cases that will now originate in juvenile court would then be bound by the ruling in J.C.N.-V, and judges would have to consider the “sophistication and maturity” of the child before determining whether or not to transfer the child to the adult system.
While the Campaign for Youth Justice advocates that all children’s cases should originate in juvenile court, these are still steps in the right direction, and nice examples of the ways that litigation and practice interface forpositive reforms. All these efforts combined will hopefully set an example for other states to come around on this issue.