Who are youthful offenders?
In the jurisdiction where I practice, we refer to 16-17 year-old clients who are subject to potential mandatory transfer to superior court as youthful offenders. This age group has its own special needs and challenges. One challenge is when your client either refuses an offer that will allow him/her to stay in juvenile court and/or requests transfer to superior court.
We know from science that adolescent brains are not fully developed until approximately between the ages of 21-25. We know that these differences in brain development have practical implications which impact their ability to plan ahead and think in hypothetical terms. We also know that they exhibit a greater degree of risk taking and more easily succumb to peer pressure. All of these factors (and more) influence their ability to make decisions and affect a teen’s ability to exhibit self-control. Additionally, they tend to be less sensitive to negative consequences. All of these factors (and more) played a role in North Carolina finally implementing the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (also known as Raise the Age) to include youth under 18 under juvenile court jurisdiction for many offenses.
N.C.G.S. §7B-2200.5 requires a youth who is charged with an A-G felony offense to be transferred to superior court for trial as an adult after a finding of probable cause or indictment. So how does this impact your representation of a 16 or 17 year old client who tells you s/he wants to be transferred to superior court or refuses to admit to an offer that will allow him/her to remain in juvenile court?
What Is Our Role?
The first, and most important, thing to remember is that as defenders our role is NOT to advocate for the best interest of our client. We are express interest advocates and represent our juvenile clients with the same zealous advocacy that we do for our adult clients – even if we disagree with the decision s/he is making once we’ve counseled him/her regarding the benefits and risks of any decision. This means we must give our clients all the information they need, in language they can understand (i.e. age appropriate) to allow them to make their own decision. There is nothing wrong with challenging their thought process or asking someone they respect to have a conversation with them about the risk of transfer.
Assuming you have exhausted all your options in advising your client, and despite all your good legal advice your client insists on moving forward, what do you do? I would suggest the following:
- Get a second opinion – talk to a local attorney who you trust or contact our office to get advice on other ways to advise your client.
- Review with your client the possible collateral consequences of a transfer to superior court. OJD has a form that lists possible risks/consequences of transfer that requires your client to acknowledge that s/he has been informed and is choosing to transfer against advice of counsel. You can access the form here.
- Put it on the record. Make the court aware of your client’s decision, but do it in a professional manner that doesn’t negatively impact the court’s view of your client.
4. Respect your client’s decision. You may disagree, but it’s important to respect your client’s agency in making a decision that s/he will have to live with.
Written by Kim Howes, Assistant Juvenile Defender for The Office of the Juvenile Defender. Kim Howes has extensive juvenile court knowledge and directly represents juveniles for OJD while also supporting the middle districts of North Carolina, including Wake & Durham counties.