Adult Certification of Juveniles

In an important decision this summer, the First Court of Appeals of Texas in Houston dismissed the murder conviction against Cameron Moon, who was sixteen years old at the time he was accused of shooting and killing Christopher Seabrook.   The Court of Appeals concluded the juvenile court did not have legally sufficient evidence to certify Moon as an adult.  This is the first time in 25 years that an appellate court has overturned a juvenile court’s decision to certify a juvenile as an adult.

Every state has a process that allows the prosecutor to move to transfer a juvenile defendant to adult court.  This is what we refer to as adult certification.  Proponents of adult certification argue that the possibility of being tried as an adult deters juveniles from committing serious crimes; however, it is very unlikely that adult certification serves as a deterrent to young people.  They either don’t know about the law or they don’t have the ability to appreciate its impact on their lives.   After all, the underlying rationale for a juvenile justice system separate from the criminal justice system is because society recognizes that young people do not have the capacity to make fully informed and well-reasoned decisions.  Science on childhood development also backs this up.  According to findings by the National Institute of Health, a person’s brain does not fully develop until he is in his early 20s.  Interestingly, the very last parts of the brain to develop are the parts of the brain responsible for controlling impulses and planning ahead.  Anyone who spends any significant amount of time around children understands that children, including teenagers, should not be held to the same standard of reasoning as adults.

Certifying a juvenile as an adult has three significant consequences.  First, it means the child will be tried and sentenced as an adult and go to adult prison.  The only sentences that can’t be imposed on a child certified as an adult are the death penalty and life without parole.  Children in adult prisons face a whole world of dangers.  As a result, prison policy is to hold the juvenile in solitary confinement during this time.  This can mean a 14 year old being held in solitary confinement for several years while waiting for a verdict.  There are numerous studies about the negative effect of solitary confinement on mental health, especially for juveniles. Second, this decision ultimately affects the likelihood this young person will be rehabilitated.  Studies show that children in adult jails and prisons have higher recidivism rates than youth in juvenile facilities, as well as higher rates of physical and sexual abuse and suicide.  Finally, a juvenile can only appeal adult certification after he or she is tried and convicted for the offense as an adult.  By the time the juvenile even has the opportunity to appeal the adult certification, he is most likely now 17 or older and considered an adult.  The prosecutor can then decide to use a different provision of the statute that allows adults to be tried as adults for crimes they committed when they were kids.  So the State essentially gets two bites at the apple.

Cameron Moon successfully appealed the adult certification because of the individual circumstances of the case, and not just the facts of the crime.  The evidence on record just did not support certifying Moon as an adult.  It is unclear right now whether the Court of Criminal Appeals will look at the case, but no matter what happens, prosecutors and juvenile court judges are on notice that adult certification must take into account the particular circumstances of each individual child.

Listen to our radio commentary on adult certification below.

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