The Nevada Supreme Court issued a sweeping and important decision that struck down a law requiring juvenile defendants to admit their guilt in order to win the right to be heard in juvenile court.

Earlier this year, the Nevada Supreme Court reached out the ACLU of Nevada, as well as national juvenile justice groups, and requested that we file an amicus in this case due to the important constitutional issues raised by Nevada’s “presumptive certification” statute.

“Certification” is a legal term that describes the transfer of a juvenile criminal defendant to adult court. The ACLU believes that certification should be the exception – rather than the rule – and reserved for particularly violent or heinous crimes. Placing a young person in adult jail exposes them to increased risk of violence, and places those with still-developing brains in a dysfunctional, criminal environment. Juvenile court offers chances for confidentiality, therapy, and oversight that are not available in adult court or prisons. Juvenile courts are designed to constructively deal with a child’s poor choices, and are our best help at preventing the creation of new career criminals.

Unfortunately, Nevada’s “presumptive certification” regime required that all children charged with a crime go by default to adult court whenever certain conditions were met – such as the use of a handgun, for example. These cases represent a large percentage of charged crimes, with the result that many, many kids were automatically sent to adult court.

However, the system allowed children to “rebut” the presumption of certification, and return to juvenile court, but only if they acknowledged guilt and showed evidence that the crime was motivated by child abuse or substance use.

While the legislature’s goal of protecting those kids with very bad influences in early life (drugs, alcohol, or abuse) from the adult system is a laudable one, the problem was that the right to access juvenile court was conditioned on a child’s admission of guilt. This is precisely what the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits.

The Fifth Amendment forbids the government from requiring compelled self-incrimination – and this doesn’t just apply to adults. The confession required of juvenile defendants in order to return to juvenile court could be used against the child in adult court (if the rebuttal evidence was rejected by the court), or in juvenile court if the defendant successfully quashed his certification. An innocent juvenile defendant was in perhaps the worst position of all, with no opportunity to leave adult court.

Overall, the law placed juveniles in an untenable and unconstitutional position: admit guilt or be penalized in the adult system. The Nevada Supreme Court’s decision will have immediate significance to hundreds of children caught up in the adult system, and rightly places the default setting as juvenile court. Perhaps more importantly, the Court has emphasized its commitment to the Constitution and the principle that the Fifth Amendment applies to all Nevadans, regardless of age.

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