Assessing the Levels of Capriciousness and Systematic Decision-Making Involved in the Automatic and Prosecutorial Certification Process in Virginia

Sanjeev Sridharan, WESTAT
Lynette Greenfield, Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice
Baron Blakely, Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice

In this presentation, we examine both the capriciousness and systematic factors involved in the automatic and prosecutorial certifications decision-making in Virginia. In the case of automatic certification, juveniles, age 14 to 17 years, who are charged with capital murder, first degree murder, second degree murder, lynching, or aggravated malicious wounding are automatically waived to circuit (adult criminal) court, pending a hearing on probable cause. For prosecutorial certification, juveniles, age 14 to 17, who are charged with certain violent offenses, can be waived directly to circuit court on the motion of the prosecutor, pending a hearing on probable cause.

As described by Feld (2000, p. 126): "Proponents of the direct-file strategy claim that prosecutors can act as more neutral, balanced, and objective gatekeepers than either 'soft' judges or 'get tough' legislators (McCarthy, 1994)." This presentation provides an opportunity to examine such a claim. In addition, it also provides an opportunity to describe certification practice under prosecutorial and automatic certification. Some of the research questions that arise when considering automatic or prosecutorial certification include: Are a majority of "certifiable" offenders actually certified? Are there a systematic set of factors used in deciding whether to certify or retain a juvenile? What mechanisms do the key decision makers use in order to retain a certifiable offender in the juvenile court? Is the decision to certify capricious? Note: Although juveniles charged with any felony can be transferred to circuit court, juveniles charged with felonies other than those identified for automatic and prosecutorial certification must first go through a transfer hearing that determines their appropriateness for transfer.

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Updated 05/20/2006