Balancing rehabilitation and punishment: combining juvenile court waiver mechanisms to create a balanced justice system.

AuthorWeston, Brandon


On the night of June 15, 2013, Breanna Mitchell was driving on a rural road near Fort Worth, Texas when her vehicle stalled. (1) Not long after, Ethan Couch, an intoxicated 16-year-old, lost control of his truck while speeding down the same road, killing Breanna and three bystanders who had stopped to help fix her car. (2) A teenage passenger in Couch's truck was also permanently brain damaged as a result of the crash. (3) Police would later determine that Couch chose to drive despite having THC, valium, muscle relaxants and three times the adult legal limit of alcohol in his system. (4) Couch reportedly showed little remorse at the scene, commenting to a friend that he would get them out of trouble. (5)

Only three months prior to this fatal crash, Couch had pled no contest to possessing and consuming alcohol illegally. (6) The juvenile court, following its goal of pursuing rehabilitation over punishment, required Couch to complete an alcohol awareness class and to participate in twelve hours of community service. (7)

For causing the death of four people, Couch was charged with, and pled guilty to, four counts of intoxication manslaughter in juvenile court. (8) Couch was tried in juvenile court and sentenced to only ten years' probation, with no jail time. (9) Couch's sentence created a public uproar both locally and internationally, with many in the media openly questioning whether rehabilitation should be the primary goal in these types of cases. (10)

Couch's attorney defended the sentence as consistent with the purpose of the juvenile court system: "If the point of the juvenile system is to rehabilitate these kids and make them productive members of society, then the judge did absolutely the right thing." (11) Family members of the victims, on the other hand, have expressed frustration and argued that justice was not served. Eric Boyles, a relative of two of the victims stated: "I'm sure the judge is doing what she thinks is probably right for Ethan's rehabilitation ..., But from the victims' standpoint, she underestimated the impact. Words can't describe how disappointed I am in terms of how the judicial system works." (12)

One year earlier, in Michigan, seventeen-year-old Takunda Mavima crashed his car, killing two of his teenage passengers and injuring two others. Mavima's blood alcohol, at .10, was just over the legal limit for adults of .08. (13) Because Mavima was seventeen years old, he was statutorily ineligible to be tried as a juvenile. (14) Mavima was tried as an adult and sentenced to between thirty months to fifteen years in jail. (15) Many of the victim's family members requested that the court show Mavima leniency and spare him jail time. (16) When sentencing Mavima, the judge noted that he had received many letters from educators at Mavima's high school that described him as "a model student, someone who excelled in all he did." (17) Nevertheless, the judge chose to impose a sentence "he hoped would speak to the seriousness of drunken driving." (18)

The disparity between the sentences imposed on Mavima and Couch resulted from the divergent goals of the judicial systems in which they were tried. Couch was tried in the juvenile justice system, where the court's goal is to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. (19) Mavima, on the other hand, was tried in the criminal justice system, where "[p]unishment replaces treatment as [a juvenile's] ... acknowledged fate." (20)

In every state, there are judicial procedures that help determine when and how juvenile offenders will be waived from juvenile court into criminal court. (21) These procedures effectively establish a line that separates the juvenile and criminal justice systems. (22) When a juvenile's case falls on the wrong side of the procedural line, he loses the relative protection of the juvenile court's singular rehabilitative focus. (23) In some states, this line is set by subjective assessments of a juvenile's amenability to rehabilitation. (24) In other states, objective factors such as a juvenile's age or conduct determines when he will be tried as an adult. (25)

This note will argue for an approach to the waiver of juveniles that balances the juvenile court's goals of rehabilitation with the concerns of retribution, protection and deterrence in the adult criminal justice system. Specifically, it will propose a system that uses different waiver mechanisms based on discrete age range and type of offense. This system would reconcile the goals of punishment with a contemporary understanding of juvenile responsibility. Section I will explore the juvenile justice system in the United States and describe how its purpose has evolved. In particular, it will focus on how the Supreme Court has helped to define the diverging goals of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Section II will explore how states have responded to the Supreme Court's extension of criminal procedural protections to juveniles. In particular, it will examine the three most prevalent waiver schemes employed by states to balance the differing goals of the juvenile and criminal court systems: judicial waiver, statutory exclusion, and prosecutorial waiver. It will compare and contrast each of these procedures to illustrate how each, by itself, fails to achieve a balanced justice system. Section III advocates a solution to the problems discussed in Section II: a recognition of distinct age ranges within the overall juvenile classification, with different waiver mechanisms used for each age range to mitigate incongruities between a juvenile's sentence and his potential for rehabilitation. Such a waiver system could better balance the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile court system with the punitive goals of the criminal courts.


    Generally speaking, the adult criminal justice system focuses on "the punishment of criminals," whereas the juvenile justice system pursues "the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders." (26) This split within the United States justice system has its roots in the English common law notion of parens patriae, a concept under which the state was viewed as the "ultimate protector of children." (27) Under parens patriae, the judicial system sought to help juvenile lawbreakers through rehabilitation, rather than punish them. (28) Parens patriae was a "recognition that a child was an incomplete person for purposes of legal responsibility." (29) While English common law recognized a fundamental difference between children and adults, it did not go so far as to create a separate court system for children. (30) Rather, common law rules acted to exempt children from the harsh penalties of the adult criminal justice system. (31) Specifically, prior to the age of seven, children were not held responsible for their actions. (32) From ages seven to fourteen, children were presumed to not be responsible, but this presumption could be rebutted by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the child understood his actions. (33) However, this all-or-nothing justice system was criticized as being too rigid. (34) For example, if the court decided a child over the age of seven understood his actions, he would be prosecuted and punished as an adult, even potentially facing a death sentence. (35) Conversely, if a child did not fully understand his actions, he was completely exempt from the criminal justice system. (36)

    The American juvenile system rejected the all-or-nothing approach of the English courts. From their inception in the late nineteenth century, American juvenile courts had "rehabilitation as the primary purpose, as an alternative to the punitive nature of the criminal system." (37) To achieve their rehabilitative goals, early juvenile courts were granted broad discretion to fashion individually tailored dispositions. (38) Because these dispositions were not considered "criminal convictions," the juvenile court system was initially viewed as exempt from most of the constitutional procedural protections that had developed for adults facing punitive penalties in criminal court. (39) Eventually, however, concern arose over the broad powers juvenile courts exercised over children, and the potential for arbitrariness in their dispositions. (40)

    1. The Supreme Court Extends Juveniles ' Procedural Protections

      Beginning in 1966 with the landmark case Kent v. United States, the Supreme Court began to extend constitutional procedural protections to juvenile court proceedings. (41) In Kent, a sixteen-year-old was charged in juvenile court with raping a woman. (42) While the juvenile court had original jurisdiction over the case pursuant to a state statute, the judge waived the court's jurisdiction and transferred the case to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (43) In executing the waiver, the juvenile judge did not hold a hearing or provide any reasons for his decision to waive the case to criminal court. (44) The Court found this waiver procedure violated Kent's constitutional due process rights. (45) Writing for the majority, Justice Fortas noted that in many juvenile courts, there was "evidence ... the child receives the worst of both worlds: that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children." (46) The Court held that the Constitution requires juvenile courts to hold hearings, allow access to records, and provide a statement of the reasons for transferring a juvenile to criminal court. (47)

      Only one year later, in In re Gault, the Court extended additional due process rights to juvenile offenders. (48) The Court held that juvenile offenders must be provided written notice of the charges against them, (49) the right to counsel, (50) the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, (51) and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. (52) The Court observed that the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT