Law automatically charging youths as adults blasted as outdated relic

By: - March 19, 2021 6:37 am

The neighbor countersued, alleging the short term rental homes owner was trying to prevent her from speaking out about a matter of public importance. (Sang Hyun Cho from Pixabay)

Nevada is still dealing with the ramifications of 90s-era tough-on-crime policies that popped up across the nation and led to skyrocketing rates of mass incarceration that overwhelmingly funneled Black and brown people into the criminal justice system.

One such relic, known as direct file, automatically refers youth accused of certain felonies to the adult system, bypassing the juvenile justice court altogether.

After years of data showing Black and brown youth in Clark County bear the brunt of the direct file laws, Assembly Bill 230 would strip provisions that automatically certifies some youth as an adult and put discretion back into the hands of juvenile court judges. 

Assemblyman Cameron Miller (D-North Las Vegas), who presented the measure at a legislative hearing Thursday, said other states have passed laws to give courts greater discretion when certifying youth as adults. 

“Several states have passed measures to revise their direct file statutes and some have even eliminated the practice of trying youth as adults altogether,” Miller said. “Now it’s Nevada’s turn.”

An amendment proposed by the Clark County District Attorney’s office would omit charges of murder and sexual assault for 16- and 17-year-olds, meaning some youths could still be automatically referred to adult courts. Their proposal would also exempt those aged 16 and 17 who are charged with armed robbery if they have a previous felony conviction.

Brigid Duffy, the director of the Juvenile Division for the Clark County DA’s office, estimates with the amendment the law would still apply to 60 percent of direct files. 

But supporters of the bill pushed back on the amendment saying it would still leave out too many youths. 

“Nevada cannot wait another two years for another legislative fix to demonstrate the compassion for this population of youth who may one day be eligible for relief,” said Kristina Wildeveld, a criminal defense attorney. “To do that would defeat the purpose of this bill.” 

Miller said the legislation is about righting “the wrongs of the past.”  

“In the 80s and the 90s, nearly every state adopted direct file laws that removed children, in some cases as young as 10 years old, from the juvenile courts and exposed them to adult sentences including life without parole,” he said “Much of this legislation stemmed from the devastating narrative that a monstrous wave of mythical creatures known as superpredators — impulsive, remorseless, elementary school youngsters who packed guns instead of lunches —  would take over. So the obvious solution was to lock them up as young as possible to save the world.”

That narrative wasn’t true and states are still dealing with the damage. 

Jagada Chambers, the rights restoration coordinator with Silver State Voices who testified alongside Miller, said of the 219 youths who were referred to Clark County’s adult criminal system since 2013, 199 were Black and brown.  

In 2017 alone, when 41 youths were directly filed to the adult system, all were youth of color and 27 were Black. 

“The data is troubling at the very least and some would say a civil rights issue,” he said. 

Following the release of 2017’s data, Chambers said organizers reached out to Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson to get more information about direct files.

“We wanted to know the kid’s literacy levels, if the children were in foster care, did they commit their crimes with adult co-defendants,” Chambers said. 

Some of the information provides a better understanding of how crimes might have occured. The information wasn’t available, Chambers said.

Duffy said the amendment is about balancing the “rights and protections of victims” while still being able to help youth charged with serious crimes.

But Wildeveld called the amendment flawed because it still allows youth charged with murder and attempted murder to be directly filed, rather than giving juvenile court judges the opportunity to “determine if that specific child should remain in juvenile court.”

“There is scientifically very little difference between a 15-year old and a 16-year old. Therefore, if a juvenile finds themselves in a situation the day after their 16 birthday or having committed a certain offense, they will lose that protection of going before a juvenile judge,” she said. 

AB 230 doesn’t guarantee youths won’t be tried as adults. 

Leslie Turner with the Mass Liberation Project at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada said there shouldn’t be any scenario where a child is sent to adult court. 

“If a youth pulls a trigger and kills someone, that doesn’t change the fact they are still a child,” Turner said. “Holding a child accountable is not what we’re debating. What is acceptable as accountability for a youth that commits a very serious crime?”

Turner challenged the need to punish with prison time and subject a child to the adult justice system.

“We’ve been brainwashed to believe that punishment, retribution, torture and confinement are our only means of justice,” Turner said. “We as a society have conflated the satisfaction of revenge with justice. Justice is getting to the root cause. Justice is healing and restoration. None of which are delivered by putting youth in adult systems.”

Michael Whelihan with Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice opposed the bill, citing the potential fiscal impact, which included not having enough beds or the infrastructure to house youth waiting for the certification process. 

The ACLU of Nevada, which supported the bill, also provided an amendment, which would direct the Interim Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice to determine the infrastructure needs and costs associated with housing youth awaiting a juvenile certification proceeding.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.