Professor Madalyn Wasilczuk

On Dec. 30, 74-year-old Angela Haymon was killed, felled by a single gunshot wound. According to a detective, the bullet tore through her thumb before entering her chest. Her neighbors have described her as warm and kind. At her funeral, her daughter spoke about forgiveness and love. Her death was a tragedy.

On Feb. 27, District Judge Gail Grover determined there was probable cause that Xavier Cade, the 15-year-old boy arrested for the killing, had committed second-degree murder. He will now face trial in adult court. This, too, is a tragedy.

Xavier will be tried in adult court not because the judge found him irredeemable, exceptionally mature, or beyond rehabilitation. Instead, he will be tried in adult court because Louisiana law requires children 15 and over to be tried in adult court when there is probable cause for second-degree murder charges.

As a result, Xavier will be tried as an adult without any individualized determination that adult court is the right place for him to face the consequences of his actions.

Most states permit some children to be charged as adults, but unlike states that passed these laws during the “tough on crime” and “super-predator” eras of the 1970s-90s, Louisiana has had some form of transfer on the books since the inception of the state’s juvenile legal system in 1906.

While Louisiana’s juvenile transfer laws are some of the harshest, the state keeps no data on the number of children transferred. When prosecutors charge a child with a transferable charge, the law does not require them to consider the child’s individual circumstances. Moreover, Louisiana is one of a minority of states that transfers children into adult court without a chance to be sent back to juvenile court for trial or sentencing.

Only in rare circumstances can a judge consider whether adult court is the appropriate place for the child. In Xavier’s case, the judge could not consider his amenability to rehabilitation in the juvenile system, level of maturity, or mental state. The judge could not even consider the victim’s family’s feelings about the case.

Instead, once probable cause was found, the juvenile court lost the power to hear the case. Xavier now faces a minimum sentence of life with parole eligibility at 25 years. Harsh mandatory sentences pressure children to plead to charges that lack a mandatory sentence. If convicted of second-degree murder, Xavier will first be parole-eligible after two and a half decades behind bars — at which time Xavier would be over 40 years old. Even then, there is no guarantee Xavier would ever see the outside of prison. Parole is not often granted the first time, a stringent set of requirements must be met, and the life expectancy of those who enter prison as children is drastically reduced.

Louisiana is also out of step with contemporary understanding of adolescent development. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that children’s minds work differently than those of adults, causing them to take ill-advised risks and preventing them from grasping the consequences of their actions. The court has also noted children’s tremendous capacity for rehabilitation when given the proper supports — supports that exist in the juvenile system but are lacking in the punitive adult system.

What’s more, transferring children to adult court increases the likelihood that they will be rearrested by 34%, making our communities less safe. Therefore, some states have instituted reforms, opting to keep children in the juvenile system where they can receive the rehabilitative services they need to lead productive lives.

In commenting on Xavier’s case, District Attorney Hillar Moore III of East Baton Rouge Parish said the effects for both sides would be “devastating.” Certainly nothing will give Angela Haymon back to her family. But in requiring Xavier’s prosecution as an adult, Louisiana’s laws make us no safer while inflicting decades of psychological and physical harm on a child.

Madalyn K. Wasilczuk is an assistant professor at LSU Law Center. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of the LSU Law Center.