Many people have heard the term "Youthful Offender" used by judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, but they may not know exactly what that term entails. This blog posting is intended to explain what the Youthful Offender rule is in Alabama and how it can be a tremendously important tool in assisting the resolution of criminal matters.
WHAT IS A YOUTHFUL OFFENDER?
In the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure, more commonly referred to as Alabama's Title 15, there is a specific code section, 15-19-1, that defines what a Youthful Offender is (from a perspective of status) as well as the application for, the purpose of, and the requirements of being "adjudicated" a Youthful Offender. Section 15-19-1(a) states that "A person charged with a crime which was committed in his minority but was not disposed of in juvenile court and which involves moral turpitude or is subject to a sentence of commitment for one year or more shall, and if charged with a lesser crime may be investigated and examined by the court to determine whether he should be tried as a youthful offender, provided he consents to such examination and to trial without a jury where trial by jury would otherwise be available to him."
Ok, great....but what does that mean in English? It means that if a person under the age of 21 years of age when he committed a criminal act makes an application for Youthful Offender status (also commonly called "Y.O. status"), and that status is granted in accordance with Alabama state law, he must give up his right to be tried by a jury if a jury trial was an available option for the defendant.
Section 15-19-1(b) goes on to state, "After such investigation and examination, the court, in its discretion, may direct that the defendant be arraigned as a youthful offender, and no further action shall be taken on the indictment or information; or the court may decide that the defendant shall not be arraigned as a youthful offender, whereupon the indictment or information shall be deemed filed."
And what exactly does THAT mean? It means that if the probation officer (whose job it is to do some background investigation into the life and crime charged of the defendant) investigates and recommends that the defendant should be granted Y.O. status, she will recommend that the Y.O. petition be granted to the judge who will make the final call on granting Y.O. status. If the judge agrees to grant Y.O. status to the defendant, then that means that there will be no jury trial (only a bench trial IF the youthful offender defendant decides to plea not guilty), and that the defendant's finding of guilt or plead of guilty shall become a sealed record, thereby making it almost impossible for anyone to ever see the outcome of a case involving a minor.
It also means that the maximum confinement time in Alabama for a Youthful Offender who pleads guilty or is found guilty in trial is THREE (3) years in a correctional facility. It means that the judge cannot place the adjudicated Youthful Offender on probation for a period NOT TO EXCEED three (3) years, if the judge orders probation at all. It also means that the judge cannot set a fine greater than $1,000.00 for an adjudicated youthful offender.
What happens if Y.O. status is NOT granted by the judge? That's easy. It means that the defendant will be tried as an adult and have the option of a jury trial if one is availed by law. It means that the criminal case will proceed as a normal criminal case in adult court would proceed. It also means that any punishment and fines that the judge (or jury) may levy are restricted only by the criminal code. It means everything is on the table for punishment! Typically, judges in Alabama do not grant Y.O. status for any crimes of violence. Usually, the crimes that judges feel more comfortable granting Y.O. status to are property, drug and victimless crimes. However, I once represented a client who was charged with Rape First Degree and I actually was able to secure youthful offender status for my client in that case because of some very specific factors and mitigating circumstances that were involved. Trust me when I say its a true rarity to get Y.O. status when violent criminal charges are proffered.
So what does "adjudicated" mean and why is that so important? Let me tell you...it is an EXTREMELY important distinction. An adjudication is what's also known as a finding. It means that if a Y.O. defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, he will still be punished (significantly less harshly than a adult would), BUT HE IS NOT CONVICTED. For example, lets say that I have a client who is charged with Unlawful Distribution of Controlled Substance, which is a felony in Alabama. If I am able to convince the prosecutor, probation officer and the judge that my client should be granted Y.O. status and he then pleads guilty or is found guilty at a bench trial, even though my client will likely receive some type of punishment, at the end of the day, MY CLIENT IS NOT A CONVICTED FELON! That means he still retains his right to own and possess a firearm and can still retain his right to vote. I call that a home run...