The Commonwealth of Virginia was the first in the nation to pass legislation that provides judges with the discretion to veer away from the mandatory minimum sentence and to impose trauma-informed and age-appropriate sentences for juvenile offenders convicted of felonies and tried as adults. Although Virginia’s new law, House Bill 744 (HB 744), is a pioneering step in the right direction, this Note argues that the law may now provide judges with too much discretion. In other words, HB 744 alone, without more guidance, does not go far enough to protect the rights of juvenile offenders.
Therefore, this Note proposes a new judicial policy to guide judges in Virginia, before they exercise their discretion to sentence a juvenile offender in adult court. Judges operating under the proposed standard must adopt the principles of strict scrutiny when deciding the individual sentence of a juvenile offender tried as an adult. Accordingly, judges must ensure that their sentences are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. This Note argues that juvenile offenders are a suspect class under Carolene Products’ Footnote Four, and thereby deserve such heightened scrutiny over the judicial review of laws that affect their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Simply put, if judges fail to abide by the principles of strict scrutiny when deciding upon a sentence, appellate judges must strike the sentence down as unconstitutional if the sentence is subsequently appealed.