In 2016, the Church of St. Mary in Melrose burned to the ground in what was determined to be an act of arson. However, investigators were unable to identify the perpetrator until two years after the blaze.
In 2018, a St. Cloud teen confessed to setting the fire. Because he was only 13 at the time of the incident, he is being prosecuted for First Degree Arson in the Stearns County Juvenile Court. Had he been one year older – only 14 – he could have been in a completely different situation.
The entire juvenile court system was designed to help young people address the underlying issues that often lead to delinquent behaviors, and is focused on rehabilitation before they reach adulthood.
However, for serious or repeated offenses, teens as young as 14 can be prosecuted as adults.
So what does this mean for teens who find themselves in this situation?
Minnesota parents of teens should be aware of how and why juveniles could be prosecuted as adults, and the consequences of transferring to an adult criminal court. Most importantly, you need to know what to do if your teen is being tried as an adult.
A Juvenile “Waiver” in MN Is the Opposite of What It Sounds Like
Some crimes committed by juveniles are transferred to adult criminal court in a process known as a “waiver.”
Contrary to what you typically think a “waiver” might be, in this process, the judge waives the protections provided by the juvenile court, automatically transferring the case to adult criminal court.
While most states require a juvenile to be at least 16 at the time of the offense to be tried as an adult, in Minnesota, teens as young as 14 can be transferred to an adult criminal court.
In fact, there’s a movement nationwide to begin trying even younger teens, as juvenile crime is on the rise, and offenders are getting younger.
Factors that could lead to a waiver and transfer of a juvenile case to adult court include:
- Charges of violent or extensively damaging crime such as homicide, sex crimes or arson
- Pre-existing and lengthy juvenile records
- When a minor is approaching the age of 18
- Past efforts to rehabilitate a juvenile defendant have been unsuccessful
- Convictions which would require youth services to work with the juvenile for a long period of time
When the prosecutor files a waiver for transfer to adult court, it must be approved by a judge considering the following factors:
- Aggravating and mitigating circumstances of the alleged offense
- The defendant’s background and juvenile record
- The defendant’s willingness to seek and accept treatment in the juvenile system
The Pros and Cons of Transfer to Minnesota Adult Criminal Court
Generally, juveniles and their attorneys fight to keep a case in the juvenile court system whenever possible. That said, there are a few advantages of being tried in adult court.
Let’s take a look at both.
Pros of trial in adult criminal court include:
- Juvenile offenders have a right to a trial by jury in adult court, while guilt is decided by a judge in the juvenile system
- The jury in an adult court may be sympathetic to a juvenile offender
- The dockets of adult courts are typically more crowded, which could prompt the prosecution to offer a good plea deal in order to dispose of the case more quickly
Cons of adult criminal court proceedings include:
- The defendant is subject to more severe sentences
- Judges do not have the same discretion in punishment and treatment options — for example, imposing a curfew or counseling instead of jail time
- The juvenile offender may have to serve time in an adult jail or prison
- Adult criminal court records are more difficult to seal or expunge, so could have more impact on the defendant’s future
Your Minnesota criminal defense attorney can help you and your teen decide which direction would be the best-case scenario under the specific circumstances.
Petitioning a Juvenile Waiver in Minnesota
Fortunately, there are ways to legally challenge the transfer of a juvenile offender to an adult court. A Minnesota criminal defense attorney with expertise in juvenile cases can develop a sound defense strategy.
They will need to competently challenge the prosecution’s claims that prosecuting a juvenile offender as an adult is in the best interest of public safety.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, there are a number of strategies to argue that a juvenile offender should be prosecuted in juvenile court.
This can include working with psychologists and counselors to evaluate the defendant’s mental state, and arguing that the circumstances of the offense and the defendant’s prior juvenile history (or lack thereof) do not justify a transfer to an adult court.
In any case that involves juveniles, excellent criminal defense is particularly important, as the choices made now could affect your child’s future for years to come.
About the Author:
Christopher Keyser is a Minneapolis-based criminal and DWI defense attorney known for fighting aggressively for his clients and utilizing innovative tactics to get the most positive results. He has been featured in numerous media outlets due to the breadth and depth of his knowledge, and recognized as a Minnesota Super Lawyers Rising Star (2014–2015), a Top 100 Trial Lawyer (2013–2015), and a Top 40 Under 40 Attorney (2013–2015).