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9 crimes in Idaho automatically place teens in adult court. Not everyone thinks that’s right.

November 5, 2018 GMT

Every time Randy Smith, a deputy public defender in Canyon County who works with juveniles, is defending a teenager accused of selling drugs to a friend near a school, he sits them down and tells them the situation is serious.

So serious, in fact, they could be tried in adult court under Idaho law and face adult mandatory minimums if convicted. That means they could spend years in prison and gain a felony conviction that would follow them the rest of their life.

Smith also remembers the case of a teen who raided a parent’s medicine cabinet and traded the pills for Skittles at school. The implications of that crime in Idaho, to Smith, seem to cut against a landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kent vs. U.S., in which the court ruled a juvenile cannot be tried as an adult without a “full investigation” in court.

But in Idaho, if prosecutors charge a juvenile between the ages of 14 and 17 with one of nine crimes, there is no court hearing or, as Smith sees it, any “full investigation” — they are automatically moved to adult court. One of those crimes is the distribution of drugs within 1,000 feet of a school. A juvenile selling drugs to a friend at school technically meets that criteria.

Prosecutors in Canyon County, he said, are hesitant to charge teens caught drug dealing on school grounds with that crime — they’ll file a lesser charge instead, leaving them in juvenile court. It’s still a possibility, though, and that’s why Smith tells the teens it’s serious.

But in other cases, prosecutors do charge teens with crimes that automatically move them to adult court, where they face longer prison sentences and lifetime felon status. He knows of two pending cases in Canyon County right now. Regardless of the facts of the case, however serious the crime, it’s not right, he said.

“The Supreme Court has said we need some due process with that transition, and we’re not getting it on those nine types of cases,” Smith said.

He’s not alone in that opinion. While every state in the nation has a mechanism by which juveniles can be moved to adult court — and has for decades — the practice of trying youths as adults has become controversial.

Proponents point out it’s typically reserved — at least in Idaho — for only the most serious situations, such as rape and murder. They say it’s necessary for juveniles who commit serious crimes to face heavy, adult consequences, and they say it will help deter other youth from committing crime.

Critics claim it’s wrong to try juveniles as adults and point out there is little evidence it deters youth from committing crime. The crimes that automatically send youths to adult court seem arbitrarily chosen, and the sentences are far longer than anything a teen faces in the juvenile system — all but guaranteeing a juvenile will spend their formative years in the system. That’s not fair, they say, in light of what scientists are still learning about the juvenile brain and how long it takes to develop.

The Idaho Department of Correction currently has custody of 24 adults who began their sentences as juveniles; they will likely be joined soon by the 11 juveniles who are currently serving time in the Idaho’s juvenile correction system and are set to enter the adult prison system in the coming years, based on sentences they received in court. Across the state, there are other juveniles who currently face adult charges who may be subject to the longer sentences adults typically receive, instead of shorter stays in juvenile facilities.

While some states are changing the way juveniles can be charged as adults, Idaho is not on track to do so.

AUTOMATIC ADULT COURT

By statute, nine charges in Idaho will automatically send a juvenile 14 or older to adult court. Idaho has had such a law on the books since 1981, although back then there were only five applicable offenses. Today’s nine crimes are murder, rape, forcible sexual penetration by means of a foreign object, infamous crimes against nature, mayhem, robbery — along with assault or battery with intent to commit any of those previously listed crimes — as well as the delivering or manufacturing of controlled substances within 1,000 feet of a school, and aggravated arson.

Laws requiring juveniles automatically be tried as adults for certain offenses subscribe to a legal doctrine known as “statutory exclusion” — because the statutes exclude juveniles from juvenile court, according to the federal government’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The process is referred to as “automatic waiver,” since the juvenile is automatically waived out of juvenile court, and charges are filed directly in adult court.

Including Idaho, 28 states have such laws, according to the office’s website.

In any case, juvenile or criminal, a prosecutor has a certain amount of discretion in what charges they file against a defendant. To some extent, they must interpret the statute and apply that interpretation to the case. But for Smith, problems arise when juveniles are charged with crimes such as robbery, which will automatically move them to adult court, and which carries a lifetime sentence in Idaho.

“In most states, robbery can be accomplished by, really, a purse snatching,” Smith said.

He and his colleague, Barbara Ferre, another public defender in Canyon County who handles juvenile cases, remember at least two cases in which juveniles were charged with robbery — and thus, automatically charged as adults — because they got into fights with other teens and took something from them. In one case, a boy took another’s hat after a fight. Smith believes prosecutors could have charged those teens with battery or petite theft instead of robbery and kept them in juvenile court.

While they would like to see the automatic waiver removed altogether, Smith and Ferre did say such cases are rare. So did Canyon County Prosecutor Bryan Taylor, who said those crimes are also serious.

“Those are the crimes that are on the front page of your newspaper,” Taylor pointed out.

Idaho’s law, for instance, is why Canyon County prosecutors were automatically able to charge then-17-year-old Wyatt Weist as an adult for the attempted murder of his ex-girlfriend in Columbia High School’s parking lot.

Taylor said the criminal statutes are a reflection of the state Legislature’s values. Tracie Smith, a legal assistant supervisor at the Ada County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, echoed that sentiment.

“The Legislature has identified crimes such as murder, rape and robbery as crimes for which anyone over the age of 14 should face adult consequences,” Tracie Smith wrote in an email.

Taylor said it’s his job to enforce the statute, not pass a value judgment on it.

“That’s the Legislature’s decision, whether or not they like it or don’t like it,” Taylor said.

HISTORY

In 1994, University of Idaho professor Eric Jensen and his colleague Linda Metsger started to study the Idaho State Legislature’s decision to send juveniles to adult courts automatically in some cases. By then, a nationwide trend toward “tough on crime” laws had resulted in more youths tried as adults. The process began, Jensen wrote, in the 1980s, and continued into the 1990s, when a spike in juvenile arrest rates for violent crime snagged headlines and spurred politicians to pass harsher laws — including laws empowering prosecutors to try juveniles as adults.

Jensen, who has worked at U of I for 33 years, said he wanted to see how that national trend was playing out in Idaho, which 13 years earlier had passed its juvenile transfer law.

“Idaho enacted these policies,” he remembered. “I was interested and concerned.”

When politicians spoke about trying children as adults, Jensen remembered, they emphasized the need to deter youth from committing crime in the first place. They believed harsher sentences in adult court would achieve that goal.

Jensen wanted to test that theory, and he wanted to test it with Idaho data. Today, 24 years later, his study still remains an oft-cited treatise on a subject few researchers have examined, he said.

He and Metsger studied juvenile arrest rates from before the state enacted its law, from 1976 to 1980, and after the law went into effect, from 1982 to 1986. They looked specifically at juvenile arrest rates for homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

“(The study) showed no general deterrent effect for trying kids as adults,” Jensen said.

The few other researchers who conducted similar studies in other parts of the country found similar results, Jensen said. Research indicates those laws don’t deter juveniles at all, most likely because youth aren’t aware of the consequences of their crimes.

“Go interview some 15-year-olds and say, ‘If you hold up a liquor store with a gun, what do you think’s going to happen to you?’” Jensen said. “They’re not going to know.”

Smith agreed.

“The fact that they could go to prison doesn’t factor into their decision,” he said. “They never think that they could go to adult court.”

In fact, Jensen said, multiple studies found higher recidivism rates among juvenile offenders transferred to adult courts.

Throughout the 1990s, though, states continued to pass more legislation aimed at trying juveniles in adult court. Idaho actually added more crimes to the list of offenses that would automatically allow a prosecutor to try a juvenile as an adult.

The move to bolster that legislation received a splash of academic support in 1996, when then-Princeton University professor John DiIulio Jr. published a study on juvenile “superpredators” in an academic journal. “Superpredators” were, DiIulio wrote, a “new breed” of youthful offenders who were more violent than their predecessors and were on the rise — in the 1990s, DiIulio predicted “by the year 2010, there will be approximately 270,000 more juvenile superpredators on the streets than there were in 1990.”

A woman who answered DiIulio’s listed phone number at Pennsylvania State University told the Idaho Press she no longer had access to his correct phone number.

In subsequent years though — and in a 2001 New York Times profile — DiIulio has distanced himself from the theory and even tried to fight it. But the superpredator theory sparked first fear and then action. Then-first lady Hillary Clinton mentioned the term in a 1996 speech in New Hampshire and said the nation “needed to bring them to heel,” a remark she later walked back. At the state level, lawmakers continued passing legislation designed to hold juveniles responsible for crimes in adult court, with some states trying 13- and 14-year-olds for murder as adults.

‘I GOT WHAT I GOT’

In January 1994, as Jensen’s study prepared for publication, a Boise 14-year-old sat in a car in New Plymouth, cocked a pistol, and prepared to murder a police officer. Back then, his friends knew him as Bobby, but today — at 39, still in prison — he goes by his birth name, James Moore.

Moore shot New Plymouth police officer Wade Feldner, 29, four times in the head, killing him.

He was tried as an adult automatically, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

On Oct. 16, the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole denied him parole, and sent him back to prison for three years.

Those extreme cases are the ones proponents of automatic waiver cite when they debate the merits of the law.

“If a 16-year-old goes on a shooting spree like we saw in Columbine (High School in Colorado) and all you can do is charge six months (in jail) per victim, is that justice or is that not justice?” Taylor said. “I would defer to you as a member of the community.”

Wade Feldner’s son, Chance Feldner, who became a Boise police officer, also spoke about justice Tuesday when he addressed the parole board at Moore’s hearing. He said at 14, Moore carried a handgun and talked about wanting to kill a cop. This was not a case of a troubled teen who made one bad mistake, he told the parole board.

It wasn’t fair, he said, that Moore should get released from prison and get to start his life again.

“That doesn’t sit right with me,” Chance Feldner said. “I don’t get to start over. I got what I got.”

Moore — who began his sentence in the juvenile system — told the parole board on Tuesday he’d changed, and was no longer the angry teen he once was.

“I didn’t have myself together and my viewpoint on the world was very selfish,” he remembered. “I wish I could undo what I’ve done.”

CHANGE

Ferre, Randy Smith’s colleague at the Canyon County Public Defender’s Office, talks about psychology when she talks about juveniles tried as adults. She cites research indicating juveniles’ brains do not develop at nearly the rate once thought.

“We’ve come so far in understanding the adolescent brain,” Ferre said. “I think the law needs to catch up.”

Jensen, the researcher, agreed.

“One of the key factors in creating a juvenile court in the first place in 1899 … (is that) children don’t cognitively function the way adults do,” he said.

Randy Smith said his understanding of juvenile psychology had changed over the course of his career.

“A lot of it’s based on brain development research,” he said. “To a certain extent we all kind of got ‘yeah, kids are different,’ but the idea that their brains are still developing until they’re 25 was something I’d never heard.”

That’s why some states have removed laws that automatically place youth in adult court, although Rep. Lynn Luke, R-Boise, who sits on the state’s judiciary committee, said he is unaware of talk in the Legislature to change Idaho’s law.

Rhode Island removed its automatic waiver law earlier this year, Ferre pointed out. Since 2015, four states have raised the minimum age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult — and since 2005, 36 states and Washington, D.C., have passed more than 70 laws aimed at keeping juveniles out of adult court, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Pragmatically, Randy Smith felt there was no need for an automatic waiver into adult court. In Idaho right now, there is a separate law that allows prosecutors to file a motion to move juveniles to adult court. After they do that, a judge orders a probation officer evaluate the juvenile and hold a hearing. The judge then decides whether the youth should be tried as an adult. If lawmakers kept that law on the books, Randy Smith said, it would still allow the most serious cases in adult court.

To him and Ferre, that feels closer to the “full investigation” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled necessary in 1966.

“The only way we can claw kids back is when the judge has discretion,” Ferre said. “There’s no gatekeeper, no hearing, there’s no due process for those nine crimes.”

Idaho Press Canyon County public safety reporter reporter Emily Lowe contributed to this story.