Criminal prosecutors are required to make difficult decisions as a routine part of their jobs, but no decision is more difficult than whether to move a child charged with a particularly heinous crime from the juvenile system to the adult courts.
There are three pending cases in Utah in which authorities have or are in the process of making such a decision. All three cases involve homicide, but aside from that, they are circumstantially much different. Combined, the incidents offer an opportunity for a discussion of the philosophies that govern juvenile prosecution, and how best to reach the delicate balance of delivering punishment while offering young offenders a chance at rehabilitation.
In recent decades, the pendulum has swung toward harsher punishment for juvenile criminals, the result of more violent crimes being committed by younger offenders, particularly in gang-infested urban areas. But the system has also been imbued with the notion that justice be tempered by mercy – that for those who commit crimes at a young age, an opportunity to someday return to society should not be summarily discarded.
In Utah, the law sets forth parameters to help guide the decision. In cases involving aggravated murder with a dangerous weapon, authorities may directly charge older teenagers as adults. That is the situation in one of the three cases, a homicide in Grand County allegedly committed by two 16-year-old boys. They are charged with the shooting death of a 33-year-old man whose body was later found in the Colorado River outside of Moab.
In that case, prosecutors determined the crime is of such a brutal and calculated nature that the defendants forfeited a chance for adjudication in the juvenile system, which is traditionally more focused on avenues of rehabilitation.
In the other two cases, the proper disposition for the defendants is less clear-cut. One involves a 17-year-old boy accused of assaulting a soccer referee in anger over a disputed call on the field, leading to his death days later. Prosecutors in that case are still weighing whether to petition the courts to transfer the defendant into the adult system.
And in a third case — of a particularly shocking nature — authorities in Davis County are contemplating how to go forward with the prosecution of a 15-year-old boy suspected of killing his two younger brothers.
Each of the three crimes represents a degree of depravity, and in each case there is a justified outcry for significant punishment. Society must make it clear there are severe consequences for such behavior, regardless of age. And there must be protection against the possibility of repeat offenses.
But a healthy society also will not discount the value of a judicial system that offers hope of redemption and rehabilitation. Does a spontaneous act of anger pre-empt a teenager from ever again entering society? What about those whose crimes may be connected to an underlying mental illness that could be treated or cured?
These are tough decisions, with thorny moral and ethical implications. Those who make them don't take them lightly. Their duty is to make them in the best interest of the community as a whole – which happens to include people of a young age who may have done a horrible thing.