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Kids in court: Montana youth court 'clean-up' bill sparks debate

Montana Capitol
Posted at 9:02 AM, Apr 11, 2023

BILLINGS — Youth crime ebbs and flows in Montana and 2022 showed an uptick from the previous two years of the number of cases in youth court. A bill moving through the legislative session born in Yellowstone County makes changes to how and when a juvenile offender can be charged as an adult - but it’s turned out to be pretty controversial.

After a juvenile's arrest and charging, questions surround how to best handle these offenders. The Montana Youth Court Act lays out procedures, including when to charge teens as young as 12 years old as adults.

“It’s always been that way. It’s not that any prosecutor in the state of Montana is running around prosecuting 12-year-olds," said Scott Twito, the Yellowstone County Attorney.

That law has been on the books for 40 years, and Twito is hoping the Legislature can clean it up.

“House Bill 614 started based on a conversation I had with a lot of my prosecutors that handle youth court matters. We found that the statutes that make up the Youth Court Act need updating," Twito said.

“It’s been interesting because I’ve probably spent more time on this bill at least during the session talking to legislators about what it’s really about.”

Coming out firmly against the bill is the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.

“We see House Bill 614 for what it is and it is to chip away at the integrity of the Montana Youth Court Act and it raises some sincere due process concerns in regards to the federal Montana constitution," said Maggie Bornstein, legislative lobbyist for the ACLU.

In an email to MTN, the ACLU says the changes to the bill are significant and go beyond basic clean-ups.

House Bill 614 does not change the age range for when a juvenile can be charged as an adult, but it does add and subtract qualifying offenses.

Homicide, assault and sexual assault are already listed in the law as offenses that juveniles can be charged as adults.

HB 614 adds aggravated sexual assault, vehicular homicide, sexual homicide, and ritual abuse of a minor to the list of charges for which a juvenile can be transferred to district court.

It removes burglary and criminal possession of dangerous drugs from the list of transferable charges—two common offenses, Twito says, seen with teens.
 
“It doesn’t seem fair to a child to have that on their criminal history forever," Twito said.

One area that concerns the ACLU is a section of proposed changes they say would widen prosecutorial discretion.

"Unchecked prosecutorial discretion like this escalates low-level offenses because there is no longer a requirement that a prosecutor show good cause to do so," Bornstein said. "It is outstanding if eliminating this key component of due process upholds the liberties afforded to juvenile defendants in the criminal legal system."

"In practice, discretion of this nature resolves itself to inappropriate and extreme sentencing of minors."
 
But Twito says whether to charge a juvenile in youth or district court is not just up to lawyers.

“What’s important to remember is if a 16-year-old or a 15-year-old commits a very serious crime, maybe it’s one of the crimes we talked about, worst of the worst, they still have the protection of the court to say ‘hey, I don’t think adult court is right for you.’ It can still be moved back into youth court if that can serve the needs of the youth best, there’s still that right," Twito said.

Data collected by the state shows the number of youth court cases is the highest it's been since before the pandemic and has only been getting more serious.

In 2022, 807 felony cases were charged in youth court cases the highest number since 2014.

“There seems to be this misperception that we’re rushing to trample on the rights of juveniles due to the rise of juvenile violence. That isn’t the genesis of this bill, that isn’t the impetus of this bill. This is really a clean-up bill, and I want to be very clear on that," Twito said.