A curious case from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decided last month held that a juvenile was properly tried and sentenced as an adult for a crime committed at age 15. While processing juveniles in criminal court is not, by itself, all that curious, the reason that this particular case was in criminal court was not based on the seriousness of the offense or the Defendant’s prior criminal history. It was because the prosecution did not filed the charges against the Defendant until he was 25 years old.
In T.G.L. v. Oklahoma, the court denied the Defendant’s motion to be certified as a juvenile for sentencing. The reasoning behind the decision is a simple statutory two-step. In Oklahoma, juvenile proceedings can only be filed before a person reaches 18, within one year of the 18th birthday if the underlying act would constitute a felony if committed by an adult, or within 6 months of the 18th birthday if the underlying act would constitute a misdemeanor if committed by an adult. Title 10A Okl. Stat. 2-2-102(B)(3). Since the Defendant was 25 when charged, the statute did not permit juvenile proceedings. Indeed, it would not permit any juvenile proceedings filed against anyone over 19, even if their alleged offense was committed when they were 10 or 12 or 14.
Similarly, the Court held that Oklahoma’s Youthful Offender Act determines eligibility for youthful offender treatment (which offers reduced punishment and enhanced protections) based on age at charging, as opposed to age at the time of the alleged offense. As a result, anyone over 19 at the time of charging cannot be treated as a youthful offender. Title 10A Okl. Stat. 2-5-202. Since the Defendant was 25 when he was charged, the court held that the statute did not permit treatment as a Youthful Offender.
The only option, the court held, was to proceed against him as an adult. In the words of the court, “the provisions for juveniles and the Youthful Offender Act were created for the benefit of children and the opportunities for treatment therein are statutorily limited to those under nineteen years of age.”
There are a host of problems to this restrictive approach. Most importantly, it deprives young people of protections specifically designed for youth who offend for an arbitrary reason. It also gives prosecutors who already hold a tremendous amount of discretionary power with respect to charging decisions a reason to delay filing charges. Prosecutors in Oklahoma can avoid juvenile court jurisdiction, or evade the youthful offender statute, by simply waiting until the Defendant’s 19th birthday to file a case. In fact, because of the way Oklahoma’s Youthful Offender Act is written, its protections can become available at even younger ages.
I’m not convinced that the Oklahoma legislature intended this kind of result when it drafted its jurisdictional provisions. And I’m hoping that this is one of those cases where a court confronts poorly drafted statutory language and interprets it literally, creating such non-sensical and perverse binding authority that the legislature is compelled to amend the law.
The solution, of course, is simple. Instead of having a statute that restricts juvenile court jurisdiction based on the age of the Respondent at the time of filing, it should be tied to the age of the Respondent at the time of the alleged offense. Likewise, Oklahoma’s Youthful Offender Act should permit treatment as a Youthful Offender based on their age at the time of the alleged offense. Such an approach would bring Oklahoma in line with the vast majority of states that use age at the time of the alleged offense to determine juvenile court jurisdiction and eligibility for protective regimes like youthful offender status. And it would prevent young people from being judged and punished as adults for their youthful behavior, and being completely denied access to protective and rehabilitative provisions, simply because of when the government filed charges against them.
James Wirth, an Oklahoma attorney, has an excellent write up on the case here.