I’ve written so many blog posts about my disgust with prosecutors charging juveniles as adults. (Do a search on juvenile justice on this blog to read a few).

My views on this issue normally don’t get much support, in fact, most folks think I’m crazy for even suggesting a teen who commits a heinous crime should just accept ‘doing the time for committing an ‘adult’ crime.’ In my simple mind, if the juvenile justice system can’t handle all crimes a juvenile commits, it’s a failed system. 

My research concludes that on any given day, dozens of children ages 14-17 are housed in adult jails in counties across Pennsylvania while facing charges in adult court.

Most will see their cases dismissed or moved to juvenile proceedings, but not before they spend weeks, months or even years locked up with adults.

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer shares a story from a guy who was sent to adult jail as a juvenile and convincingly supports my view that there’s gotta be a better way. He also sheds light on a new initiative that may get introduced in the PA legislation to correct this flaw in the justice system.

Can you image being 16 and charged as an adult and put in adult jail? This guy had never been arrested before, and suddenly found himself in a dirty cell, with $200,000 bail and no idea what was going to happen. He was held in an adult jail for eight months — his entire junior year of high school — before a judge decided to “decertify” his case and transfer it to juvenile court. Once his case reached juvenile court, the matter was resolved within a month and he was allowed to return home on probation, reenroll in school, get a part-time job, and continue with his life.

What the stats says is…

  • Youth prosecuted as adults have far higher recidivism rates than youth whose cases remain in the juvenile system. 
  • When a young person commits harm, the answer is not to harm that young person in response — we all lose in that equation.

The system seems so backwards to me. I’d think that all juveniles would be charged as a juvenile until some judge determines they should be moved to adult justice, but, as you can see, it usually works in an opposite fashion. As the article describes, it all started…

In 1995, fueled by the racist and widely discredited “superpredator” myth, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 33, known as “direct file” because it allows cases to be filed against children directly in adult court, without review by a judge. Many prosecutors interpret this law to mean they must charge anyone 15 and older in adult court for certain charges. The burden is then on the young person and their defense attorney to prove that they can be treated in the juvenile system. 

Act 33 requires people between the ages of 15 and 17 charged with certain felonies — like robbery or aggravated assault — to be charged in adult court if they meet certain requirements, such as the use of a weapon during the alleged crime. Anyone younger than 15 charged in the same cases will be sent through the juvenile system. Prior to Act 33, criminal homicide was the only charge ranking above infractions like traffic tickets that automatically pulled people younger than 18 into adult court.

The Inquirer article states that Pennsylvania lawmakers have a chance to change this, and to make sure no other children experience the trauma and isolation the author faced. The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force thinks like me and wants to end Pennsylvania’s direct file laws so that all children’s cases originate in the juvenile system. They further recommended stricter limits on when a child’s case can be transferred to adult court, and barring the prosecution of anyone under age 16 as an adult. If enacted into law, these recommendations would still allow a juvenile court judge to transfer some cases to adult court, but they would prevent the unnecessary harm caused when hundreds of children are automatically sent into the adult system. This would put the burden on prosecutors to demonstrate why a young person should be charged as an adult, instead of on young people to prove they should be treated as children.

Pennsylvania was one of 19 states that allowed minors to be sentenced to death and in 2005, it took the US Supreme Court to abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders, ruling 5-4 that it is unconstitutional to sentence anyone to death for a crime he or she committed under the age of 18. Their sentences where reduced to life without parole. 

What’s your take on kids being charged as adults by default?