Every state has a juvenile justice system that handles crimes committed by children. In recent decades, however, most states have decided that some juveniles deserve to be prosecuted in adult criminal courts and to face the punishments for which adults are eligible. How the decision is made to prosecute children in juvenile or adult court varies from state to state.
Most states have a “waiver” system that allows a juvenile court judge to send children of a certain age to adult court if they are accused of committing specified offenses. The judge will consider a variety of factors, including the child’s maturity and likelihood of committing future crimes, in deciding whether to waive the child into adult court. That determination is made after taking evidence at a waiver hearing.
Some states also have a “reverse waiver” system. Children of a certain age who are accused of committing specified crimes can be charged in adult court. They then have the opportunity to present evidence to show that it would be more appropriate to handle their cases in the juvenile justice system, where the emphasis is typically on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
At either a waiver hearing or a reverse waiver hearing, expert evidence often plays a crucial role. The maturity level and other characteristics of the accused child are typically evaluated by psychologists or social workers who testify on behalf of the child or the State. The importance of that testimony is illustrated by the Slender Man case in Wisconsin.
The Slender Man case
According to the police, two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha (an affluent suburb of Milwaukee) plotted for months to kill another 12-year-old girl after a sleepover. The victim was stabbed 19 times. News stories report that the two girls meant “to pay homage to a fictional character who they believed was real after reading about him on a website devoted to horror stories.”
The girls allegedly told the police that they were trying to impress Slender Man, an “urban legend” they discovered on the Creepypasta website. Their plan was to kill their friend and then hike to Slender Man’s mansion, which they believed to be in northern Wisconsin. One of the girls expressed fear that Slender Man would kill her and her family if she did not carry out the plot. The girls told the police that Slender Man watches them and that he has the ability to read minds and to teleport.
The stabbing victim, a middle school classmate of the two girls, survived the assault. Prosecutors charged the two girls in adult court with the crime of attempted first degree murder. If they are sentenced as adults, each girl could face a maximum of 65 years in prison. If the children are sentenced in juvenile court, Wisconsin law would not allow them to be held in a confined setting beyond the age of 18.
Expert testimony in the reverse waiver hearing
Children as young as 10 can be charged as adults in Wisconsin. It then becomes their burden to convince a judge that their case should be transferred to juvenile court. A reverse waiver hearing for one of the two girls in the Slender Man case began this week.
The girl’s defense attorney relied heavily on the testimony of a forensic psychologist. After evaluating the girl, the defense expert testified that she was suffering from a delusional disorder at the time of the stabbing but does not presently suffer from the kind of personality disorder that creates a strong risk of future anti-social behavior. The psychologist described the girl as struggling with her parents’ divorce and with problems gaining peer acceptance after moving to middle school.
In addition to testifying about adolescent brain development, the expert opined that the girl’s desire for friendship made her particularly susceptible to her friend’s influence. The testimony was offered to establish that the girl’s dependent personality of more characteristic of a child than an adult, making her an appropriate candidate for juvenile court.
The expert also testified that the girl is likely to succeed if given a chance to participate in therapeutic programs that are offered to offenders who are housed in Wisconsin’s secure detention facility for juvenile girls. His evaluation determined that the girl is remorseful and motivated to change her life. That testimony was offered to establish that the girl is a good candidate for rehabilitation, which is the goal of Wisconsin’s juvenile justice system.
Prosecutors presented no expert evidence of their own. The judge assigned to the case announced that he would defer ruling until after the reverse waiver hearing of the other girl, which is scheduled to occur next month. Expert testimony is likely to play a critical role in that hearing, as well.