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Attorney: System Needs Safeguards

RELATED STORY: Will girl's rape-claim reversal clear teen?
Date published: 2/5/2009


Attorney Andrew K. Block Jr. says the case of a former Stafford County teenager convicted of rape in an incident the alleged victim now describes as consensual reveals the flaws in Virginia’s juvenile-justice system.

Block, the legal director of JustChildrencq, a program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, said the boy’s problems began not with an overzealous prosecutor or uninspired court-appointed attorney, though he thinks that contributed to the situation.

“It starts—before you argue individual responsibility—with a system that doesn't have enough safeguards in place to make sure that kids are treated fairly, appropriately and in a way that justice requires and demands,” said Block, whose program works to address education and justice issues for juveniles.

Among the systemic problems he cited are the unilateral authority of prosecutors to decide which teens get charged as adults.

A Dec. 8 Virginia Crime Commission report shows that the vast majority of law-enforcement officials surveyed—with the exception of prosecutors—support changing Virginia’s system of assigning cases against juveniles.

Currently, by statute, teens charged with certain felonies are automatically transferred to adult court for trial. For the other charges, including the ones brought against the Stafford boy, the prosecutor has the discretion.

On the question of giving circuit judges the ability to send juveniles back to juvenile court, 93 percent of chief public defenders, 84 percent of circuit judges, 77 percent of court service unit directors, 53 percent of juvenile-court judges and the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice support the move.

But 81 percent of prosecutors oppose it.

Block said another problem with the juvenile-justice system is that juvenile court is not a court of record and thus proceedings are not transcribed and can’t readily be reviewed if errors or injustices are is? alleged.

He described an overall view of the system as lacking the “same degree of seriousness” as adult court.

He noted the lack of resources available to court-appointed counsel. By statute, they are paid $120 per case, though they can petition for additional funds. And he noted the disparity of treatment for black youths, males in particular.

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Stafford County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen said his goal as a deputy prosecutor is “to do justice in all of its forms.”

He said that means doing what’s right for the system, the defendant and the case.

In some cases, he said it means not prosecuting a teen even if he could make a solid case for his or her guilt in a felony.

“There are a lot of offenses you could prove, but don’t choose to go forward in,” he said. “It happens every day in juvenile and adult court.”

In deciding whether to pursue a case, Olsen said he considers all information he has at hand, which can include prior contacts the youth had with the justice system and a background report if the youth had previously been found guilty of a crime.

Stafford has what he called an “unfortunately large” number of juvenile sex offenders, but he said he rarely asks the judge to demand a youth be listed on the sex-offender registry.

“A fraction of them, we ask for them to be required to register—a pretty small fraction,” he said. When he makes such a request, it’s out of concern for the community, he said. “It’s because we have concerns that society needs that level of protection.”

When asked whether he had ever successfully prosecuted a case and later learned the person wasn’t guilty, he said no.

“Personally, that has not happened to me,” Olsen said. “When that’s happened in this office, we take all steps we can to undo what's been done.”

—Pamela Gould