Dallas DA must treat kids like kids

Photo by Victor V.

The futures of four young Dallas teenagers accused of car theft and robbery could depend on where they’re tried. Dallas Police detectives have told victims that the young people will not be held accountable if they stay in the juvenile system, saying few juvenile cases go to trial. The idea that charging youth in adult court will hold them more accountable because they will face a trial is flawed for at least two reasons: there are no more trials in adult court than juvenile court; and trying youth in the adult system does not further accountability and, in fact, harms public safety.

Transferring youth to the adult court system neither improves public safety nor enhances youth success. Research over the past two decades has consistently confirmed that the practice of trying youth as adults erodes public safety. In fact, more than a decade ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (yes, the federal agency tasked with controlling disease) conducted an analysis of transfer practices and policies and found “that use of transfer laws and strengthened transfer policies is counterproductive to reducing juvenile violence and enhancing public safety.”

Dallas County adult felony court and juvenile court have nearly identical rates of trials in aggravated robbery or robbery cases. In 2017, 38 of 2,467 adult cases, or 1.5 percent, went to trial, compared to 1 of the 87 juvenile court cases, or 1.1 percent.

Dallas County Juvenile Court data shows that Dallas’ decision makers have been promoting youth success and community safety by keeping young people in the juvenile system and providing them with necessary resources and opportunities; in 2017, no children were transferred to the adult criminal court system for aggravated robbery or robbery cases. The Dallas County district attorney’s filing to transfer four of the six youth in this case to adult criminal court is out of step with local practice, research and evidence, and runs counter to best practices in responding to youth behavior.

Years of research on the impact of trying children as adults has revealed that there are no public safety benefits to subjecting our youth to the adult legal system. In fact, we the public suffer the impact of these flawed policies and decisions when our youth are set on a path toward prison rather than on a path toward jobs, education and success. The juvenile justice system is designed to help young people succeed while ensuring accountability, and youth and communities are best served when our courts respond fairly and effectively to alleged law violations.

Decisions to transfer youth to adult court should never be driven by politics or public pressure. Young people who come into contact with the legal system during their childhood and adolescence are more likely to lead successful lives and promote community safety when the juvenile justice system responds than when they are transferred to the adult criminal justice system. We hope the Dallas County Juvenile Court will heed the lessons of our flawed history and recognize that our communities and our young people will be better served by retaining these youth under its jurisdiction.

Mary Ann Scali

Executive director, National Juvenile Defense Center