Minors tried and convicted as adults in Hamilton County

Reported by: Erik Avanier
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Updated: 11/21/2013 6:31 pm
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee(WDEF) -  Back in the day when a child got into trouble; mom or dad would administer some type of punishment and that would be the end of it but in today's society, the courts are deciding the punishment for kids and in many cases those minors are treated as adults.

WDEF was granted access into a Hamilton County Juvenile courtroom to gain perspective into how and why so many children are being tried as adults in criminal court.

"We're here today on the states petition and request to transfer this case and child to criminal court," said Judge Robert Philyaw who makes that presentation before a transfer hearing.

A transfer hearing is what sends a child's criminal case from the juvenile court to the adult court so any time Judge Philyaw makes that statement, it either means a child has committed a very serious crime or continues to get into trouble with the law despite previous warnings in juvenile court.

"The transfer process is asking me to give up on a child. Judge you've done all you can do. Send them on downtown and let them start their criminal lives," Judge Philyaw said.

A child can be transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult court system if they've been charged with a crime like murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery or even if they've attempted those crimes. When the case makes its way to the district attorney's office, he or she must ask themselves that one harsh question before prosecuting the case, especially if the child is no stranger to trouble.

"Should you transfer them? A lot of times the answer is no. A lot of times they haven't exhausted all their means. You don't want to give up hope unnecessarily but the best predictor of a person's future behavior is their past behavior," said assistant district attorney Boyd Patterson.

"Each time we do, it's a real tragedy. It's a tragedy because at whatever level we failed that child most likely in our rehabilitation attempts in the past," the judge said.

The Transfer law specifically talks about juveniles who are 16 years of age and older but it still applies to younger children when they're accused of the most heinous crimes.

"I presided over transfer hearing for a 13 year old who was charged with attempted first degree murder," said the judge.

Children who find themselves transferred from juvenile court to criminal court in downtown Chattanooga qualify for any punishment that would normally be handed down to an adult. They could be sentenced to adult probation, ordered to enroll into an adult rehabilitation program and even forced to serve time in prison with adult offenders. Legal experts say it may sound harsh but it's become a normal process in Hamilton County.

"It's just a fact of society that some kids will make up their mind early to be criminals and there's nothing they or anyone else can do about it," said Patterson.

Judge Philyaw says there's a reason why so many kids have that mentality and it centers on a false belief that minors can only be treated as such.

"Too many children that we see think nothing they do before their 18th birthday has any consequences because their minors," Philyaw said.

WDEF caught up with former Chattanooga police Chief Freeman Cooper to get his take on children who are convicted as adults.

"Juveniles today commit crimes that once in our past was just involving adult. If juveniles now put themselves in adult situation where they are committing these crimes then I think they should be treated as adults," Freeman said.

Outside the court of law and within the court of public opinion, there's mixed thoughts on how children should be treated when they commit serious crimes. WDEF went around Chattanooga and asked several people with different age ranges and ethnicities about their thoughts on children who are tried and convicted as adults.

"Young children certainly deserve a punishment but children are children and adults are adults and there's a fine line," said a young Caucasian UTC student.

"I feel that if they did it, then go and try them as adults if they are 16 and above," said an African American woman who appeared to be in her 50's.

"They're still children and they should be tried as such and not as adults," said a Caucasian woman in her early 20's.

"I feel that if they do it, they need to answer for it," said a Caucasian senior citizen.

Almost every week, Judge Philyaw presides over a transfer hearing. He says he doesn't like it but he's bound to follow the law. Once he transfers a child to the adult court system, he has no say or influence on that child's case once it's in the hands of the next judge. This is why he wants every child in Hamilton County to think about their actions.

"Every child needs to realize there are consequences for their actions. They certainly need to take responsibility for themselves. There are consequences for actions and some are more severe than others," said Judge Philyaw because the severe consequences could mean years behind bars and a future labeled as a felon.

But their actions could also weigh heavily on mom and dad who believe their child's case should be handled in the juvenile court system. In many cases, parents can't afford defense lawyers to argue for their child. In some cases, a parent is left crying and shaking their head in the courtroom when they learn their child will be tried and convicted as an adult.

"Sometimes those parents are justified. Sometimes those parents are doing everything they can but from working two jobs, being unavailable or stress out over a life of not having a dad in the picture; there's nothing more the mom can do. It's very sad," Patterson said.

Patterson said there's another side to why more kids who commit felony crimes are being tried as adult and in many cases it centers on the parents.

"The reason the kids in trouble, because he's wandering around the streets at two in the morning when the moms out clubbing or  been truant and caught up in some daytime burglaries when the moms not really responding and making sure the kid is in school. So a lot of times unfortunately the mom, parent, grandmother is either unavailable or unwilling to give that child support they need."

As a result of that lack of support, many children are finding themselves in juvenile court. While some are sentenced to rehabilitation programs that keep they out of the juvenile detention center, others who are accused of committing serious felonies are bound over to the adult court system where their fate is big question mark.

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Here2Opine - 11/22/2013 10:16 AM
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Finally, someone holding the parents accountable. If you don't have the money or time or patience to raise your kids properly, DON'T have them!!!
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