The South Carolina Supreme Court has rejected an argument for allowing juveniles to have jury trials, unanimously holding that the state’s constitution does not entitle underage defendants to be tried in front of juries, despite language in the constitution that says anyone has the right to a jury trial.
Justice John Kittredge wrote in the July 16 opinion, which is In the interest of Stephen W., that the juvenile adjudication process in today’s family court “is not of a like nature or similar to the manner in which juveniles were criminally charged at the time the Constitution was enacted.”
Juveniles were given jury trials under the constitution in the late 1880s through the 1950s, but that was before the state’s juvenile justice code was enacted. The code prohibits jury trials for defendants under the age of 17, unless they are being tried as adults for serious crimes, such as murder.
The court also based its decision on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McKiever v. Pennsylvania, which held that under federal law juries are not required to decide a juvenile’s guilt or innocence. That decision was reached in 1971 and, because the court was unable to reach a majority consensus, it was issued as a plurality opinion.
Kittredge noted that the court’s holding falls in line with the prevailing view. South Carolina is among the overwhelming majority of states where only adults have a right to a jury trial.
Proponents of juvenile jury trials argue that McKiever needs to be revisited because family courts have gotten tougher on underage crime, meting out dispositions that can have collateral consequences that stretch into adulthood. For instance, juvenile records can stand in the way of getting into college, joining the military or finding a job.
“I think the state Supreme Court missed two big points,” said Joshua Gupta-Kagan, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who specializes in juvenile justice issues.
“One is they suggested that juvenile court’s don’t impose a stigma on kids in the way that a criminal conviction would,” he said. “I think that holding in such a brief decision didn’t really address all the ways that juvenile adjudications really do impose a stigma.”
Gupta-Kagan added that the opinion, which is barely six pages long, places too much emphasis on the differences between juvenile and adult disposition. The former has a rehabilitative aim, while the latter is more punitive.
“Juvenile courts are different at disposition,” he said, “but doesn’t mean that a jury isn’t a valuable part of adjudication.”
He and other likeminded legal scholars say juvenile jury trials produce more reliable verdicts and help to neutralize biased judges who are inclined to convict youngsters, regardless of their guilt or innocence, so they can have access to rehabilitative services.
Kittredge stated in the opinion that adjudication in family court is not the same as a conviction because it does not “operate to impose civil disabilities ordinarily resulting from conviction.”
He also wrote that the “very nature of the juvenile justice system makes clear the family court juvenile adjudication is an inherently different process than a typical criminal prosecution.”
About two weeks after the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the Stephen W. case, it listened to virtually identical arguments for and against juvenile jury trials in the case of Kevin R.
Kevin’s attorney, Susan Hackett of the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense’s appellate division in Columbia, declined to discuss the court’s decision and how it might impact her case.
Kevin argues that the state violated his constitutional right to a jury trial after he was accused of bringing a pocketknife to school in Richland County in the fall of 2011. He was 16 at the time and said he was carrying the knife for protection after a group of boys jumped him at a bus stop. A family court judge refused to grant Kevin’s motion for a jury trial, adjudicated him as a juvenile delinquent in 2012, and placed him on probation until his 18th birthday.
Stephen, 16, also asked for a jury trial, but was denied. A judge then found him delinquent for possessing marijuana. He was ordered to spend six consecutive weekends at the Department of Juvenile Justice, complete an alternative educational program, and continue with his prior probation until his 18th birthday or until he obtained a G.E.D. He was on probation for contempt and violation of a school attendance order.
An amicus brief filed in Kevin’s case from the S.C. Association for Justice, S.C. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Lawyers Committee for Children’s Rights argued that providing jury trials to juveniles would not overburden the family court system. Opponents disagreed.
Stephen’s appellate attorney, Robert Pachak, also of the Commission on Indigent Defense, did not respond to interview requests. Assistant Attorney General Mark Farthing declined comment through a spokesman.
The six-page opinion is In the interest of Stephen W., Lawyers Weekly No. 010-072-14. A digest of the ruling can be found at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz