Is a teenager capable of making adult decisions? That depends on the teenager. Unfortunately,Virginia doesn’t see it that way. Juveniles 14 and older who are accused of murder or aggravated wounding are automatically tried in adult court in the commonwealth. They also can be tried in adult court for other crimes at the request of a prosecutor.
Should a minor decide to have an abortion, however, she first must receive her parent’s consent. Minors also are forbidden to buy alcohol or tobacco, can’t vote, and face a variety of other restrictions on the premise that they lack the mature judgment required to make such choices.
A new report by the Legal Aid Justice Center takes issue with Virginia’s practice of treating teens as adults in criminal trials — a practice it terms “unfair, unsafe, and ineffective.” It is also, as noted above, inconsistent with Virginia’s treatment of juveniles in nearly every other realm of public policy.
The state crime commission is studying legislation that would permit juveniles to challenge prosecutors’ requested transfers of cases to adult court. That’s a start. But state leaders need to do much more. They should start by launching a conversation about the line separating adolescence from adulthood, and what justification there could be for allowing that line to jump around.