MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Thanks to a law that sailed through the Alabama Legislature earlier this year with little debate, juveniles who are automatically charged as adults are shielded from public scrutiny.
The Juvenile Confidentiality Act, which took effect this summer, caught law enforcement officials in Mobile off guard. Mobile County District Attorney Ashely Rich said she was not even aware of it until after the Legislature passed the law.
“It was not on our radar,” she told FOX10 News. “It came as a very big surprise to law enforcement.”
Alabama law long has protected most juvenile offenders from publicity under the rationale that children easily should be able to put youthful mistakes behind them. But that did not apply to 16- and 17-year-olds charged with more serious crimes. They automatically were charged as adults. They still are, only now their names, mugshots and other personally identifiable information are not available to the public.
Rich said her office has had to educate police that they no longer can release the names of minors charged with even Class A felonies, “which is murder, rape, robbery – the most serious offenses we have down here.”
Added Rich: “It doesn’t matter what age you are, you should be treated as an adult, and the law supports that. If you’re 16 years old or 17 years old and you commit one of these Class A felonies, you don’t go to Strickland Youth Center. You go straight to Metro Jail.”
It is not entirely clear what the impetus for this law was. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and the Appleseed Center for Law and Justice all told FOX10 News this was not a bill they pushed. It’s sponsor, state Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.
It passed the state Senate without a “no” vote and cleared the House 76-27.
Gar Blume, a Tuscaloosa-based defense lawyer who handles juvenile cases across the state, told FOX10 News that the new law is fairer to teenagers initially charged as adults who later have charges reduced or get “youthful offender” status that limits punishment and seals their court records.
“The kid goes to juvenile court, but the cat’s out of the bag,” he said.
Prior to that point, Blume said, teens charged with serious crimes often get subjected to “perp walks” and media coverage.
“Which definitely impugns a kid’s reputation, just with the accusation,” he said.
Another quirk, Blume said, is that the new law does not cover teens younger than 16 whose cases must start in juvenile court but get moved to adult court. He presented the hypothetical scenario of a mass school shooting committed by a 16-year-old student and a 15-year-old classmate. Under the new law, the 16-year-old will be charged as an adult but enjoy the protections under juvenile law. But the 15-year-old’s name and case records would be public if the case got moved to adult court.
Blume said it makes sense to keep names out of the public eye, especially since a long list of crimes – not just the most heinous – can trigger automatic adult charges. He said he represented a teenager who got into a fight at a Wal-Mart and broke someone’s leg. The case ended up in adult court, he said.
But the law goes well beyond maintaining confidentiality until a youthful offender determination can be made. Everything stays secret until after a conviction. That means a 17-year-old could blow away a police officer to commit a mass school shooting, get charged with capital murder – and all of the proceedings, including the trial would be withheld from the public.
“If a 17-year-old commits a cold-blooded murder, and they’re arrested for that crime, the news – nor anybody in media – can print the photo or anything about that 17-year-old, even though they’ve just been arrested,” Rich said.
Even in the most extreme cases, she added.
“A 17-year-old could go out and kill 10 people, and they’re identity is going to be protected,” she said.
It is uncommon but not unheard of for teenagers to commit serious crimes. Mobile police say so far this year, they have arrested a dozen juveniles on Class A felony charges, including 10 who would fall under the new protections.
Mobile Public Safety Director Lawrence Battiste said law enforcement is adjusting.
“It’s an inconvenience for us in the area of public safety,” he said. “Unfortunately, you know, it got through the Legislature without us knowing that it was being introduced. But we have it, and so we’ll do our best to make sure that we comply.”
Battiste noted that the law does give judges the discretion to waive the confidentiality in cases where it is in the best interest of the defendant, national security or public safety.
But he said he finds it “offensive to know that someone has … committed a heinous act of murder, assault of a law enforcement officer, assault of a schoolteacher, you know, with a weapon, and we can’t make it known who that individual happens to be.”