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    Document Summary
    - Report Published -

    House Document No. 81

    Document Title
    The Study of Serious Juvenile Offenders

    Virginia Commission on Youth

    Enabling Authority
    HJR 431 (Regular Session, 1993)

    Executive Summary
    The Serious Juvenile Offender Task Force met 12 times during the course of the two-year study to review data, discuss policy concerns, and recommend a comprehensive legislative package to deal with serious juvenile offenders. The following is a summary of the key project activities, study findings and recommendations for the Commission on Youth's two-year study of serious juvenile offenders.


    The Serious Juvenile Offender Task Force concentrated on widespread data collection and analysis to form the basis for addressing the issues enumerated within the study mandate. Much of the data that was analyzed had to be collected either through the development and dissemination of surveys or through analysis of existing data bases. Surveys were used to gather national and statewide information. In addition, comprehensive searches of existing Virginia Department of Youth and Family Services' learning center files and Department of Corrections' Presentence Investigation Reports were conducted. These analyses provided the Task Force members with an understanding of:

    • the characteristics of the juvenile offender population in both the juvenile and adult systems,
    • the nature of juvenile arrests and sentencing practices in juvenile and adult court districts throughout the state,
    • the views and opinions of the judges and attorneys working with serious juvenile offenders in both the juvenile and adult court systems, and
    • the way Virginia compares to other states in its handling of serious juvenile offenders, with respect to policy and client impact.

    Three areas of analyses were completed during the first year of the study and were presented in-depth in the interim report (House Document 33). These analyses included:

    1. examination of the arrest and sentencing practices by court district for convicted juvenile felons,

    2. development of a statistical profile of the serious juvenile offenders in learning centers versus those transferred/convicted in Circuit Court, and

    3. development of a statistical model which identified the factors having an effect on whether a juvenile was committed for a transfer-eligible offense to a learning center versus transferred/convicted in adult court.

    In addition, three analyses started during the first year were completed and presented to the Task Force during the second year to the study. These analyses, which will be presented in detail later in the report, included:

    1. administration and analysis of a comprehensive survey to all of Virginia's Commonwealth's Attorneys, Circuit Court Judges, Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judges, and state-supported Public Defenders (76% response rate),

    2. administration and analysis of a national survey of each of the other 49 states and the District of Columbia concerning the number of juveniles transferred and convicted as adult offenders (100% response rate), and

    3. a comprehensive examination of the transfer statutes from the other 49 states and the District of Columbia to gather comparative information on the criteria contained in the various transfer statutes, as well as definitions of serious juvenile offenders.

    In addition to data analyses, the Task Force used a variety of means to seek Virginia citizens, input on the issue of serious juvenile offenders. During the first year, the Task Force held three public hearings in different parts of the states. In November 1993, a forth public hearing was held and draft legislation recommendations were disseminated to Virginia officials. Written comments were received from judges, law enforcement officials, and Commonwealth's Attorneys from across the state. In both years of the study, the chairman of the Task Force presented to the Juvenile Court Judges' Association and the Commonwealth's Attorneys' Services and Training Council.


    The two years of data analysis yielded the following findings.

    • Circuit Court convictions of juveniles for transfer-eligible offenses increased 31% from 1988-1990, compared to a 7% increase in transfer eligible arrests.

    • There are tremendous jurisdictional variations in per capita arrests for transfer eligible offenses, learning center commitments for transfer-eligible offense and transfer/convictions for transfer-eligible offenses, suggesting a form of "justice by geography."

    • Juveniles committed to learning centers and juveniles transferred/convicted in Circuit Court are predominately minority males at least two years behind their age-appropriate grade level; however, transferred juveniles had twice as many prior property offenses as those retained by the juvenile justice system.

    • From 1988-1990, the majority of juveniles (63%) convicted in Circuit Court were sentenced to prison; however, 22% received no incarceration. Subsequently, the percentage of juveniles receiving no incarceration during calendar year 1992 increased to 25% (104 out of 412).

    • Juveniles that were convicted in Circuit Court and released from 1988-1990 served an average of twice as long as youth committed to and released from learning centers for transfer-eligible offenses.

    • The number of prior property offenses, closely followed by the age of the juvenile, was the greatest predictor of the decision to transfer in a statistical model of 13 factors.

    • While there was no unanimity of opinion regarding corrective action, the public believes that the current system of dealing with serious juvenile offenders is not effective. The public hearings yielded the following suggested changes: lowering the age for transfer, extending jurisdiction of the juvenile court, establishing a juvenile parole board and automatic prosecutorial waiver for certain crimes.

    • The Virginia survey analysis showed that:

    1. an overwhelming majority of the Circuit and juvenile court Judges and Commonwealth's Attorneys responding to the survey (86%) felt offense and prior record were the most important factors in the decision to transfer;

    2. respondents felt the current transfer statute needed clarification and changes; however, few felt that any of the current criteria should be excluded as factors for consideration;

    3. a large majority of respondents (84%) felt Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judges should be able to set determinate sentences for juveniles committed to learning centers for transfer eligible offenses and be able to set longer sentences under the Serious Offender Statute; and

    4. respondents (54%) felt post-dispositional options at the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court level are not adequate to deal effectively with serious juvenile offenders.

    • The analysis of other state transfer statutes showed:

    1. Virginia is one of only nine states with a minimum age of transfer eligibility which is at least 15 years,
    2. seventeen states have no age criteria for at least some offenses,
    3. twenty-two states have an age criteria between 10-14 years and three states do not have a transfer statute, and
    4. other state transfer statutes incorporate at least 13 categories of criteria, including offense and offender characteristics, for the court and/or prosecutors to consider when deciding whether to transfer cases.

    • Virginia ranked 8th out of 44 states and the District of Columbia in terms of the per capita number of juveniles transfer/convicted in adult court from 1988-1990 and first among states with a minimum age criteria of at least 15 years.


    The second year of the Serious Juvenile Offender Study focused predominately on necessary changes to the current Code of Virginia transfer and serious offender statutes and on the adequacy of post-dispositional alternatives for serious juvenile offenders. The cumulative findings from the two years of data analyses, the American Bar Association Standards, and model language from other states were used as the basis for developing recommendations for statutory change. The Task Force recommended that numerous changes be made to the transfer statute ( 16.1-269), the Serious Offender Statute ( 16.1-285.1), the victim notification statute ( 66-25.2), the dispositions for delinquent children statute ( 16.1-278.8), the places of confinement statute ( 16.1-249) and related statutes. The Virginia Commission on Youth approved all of the Task Force's recommended changes, in addition to four patron changes, and will sponsor legislation which incorporates the following legislative provisions during the 1994 Session of the General Assembly (Appendix C). There was one dissenting opinion from a Commission on Youth member. A copy of this opinion is included as Appendix D.