When a young person under 18 faces criminal charges, Pennsylvania law usually requires a judge to confirm whether charging them as an adult is in the public interest.
But that rule doesn’t apply for some of the most serious charges, like rape, murder, and kidnapping. Those are immediately transferred to criminal court due to statutory exclusion, a provision in state law that completely excludes certain charges from juvenile court.
This statute is in the news after the beating death of James “Simmie” Lambert in North Philadelphia. The 73-year-old, described as a lifelong city resident who took a daily walk along the block where he was attacked, left behind a grieving sister and other family.
Surveillance video captured a group of teens in the act, and they’ve begun to surrender to the police.
A 14-year-old on Monday became the first to turn himself in, and was charged as an adult with third-degree murder and conspiracy, though his 10-year-old brother was released. He was followed on Wednesday by a 14-year-old girl, who will likely face similar adult murder charges.
Not all states send such cases directly to criminal court without oversight.
Outside Pa., some states require processes of judicial and prosecutorial discretion — when a judge or a prosecutor, respectively decides whether to try to the youth as an adult. No U.S. states have laws banning the charging of kids as adults.
The myth of the superpredator
The history of statutory exclusion is tied to the escalation of punitive measures that took place in 90s, and advocates are currently supporting a bipartisan push to end the practice.
A bipartisan bill called the Juvenile Justice Policy Act is currently pending in the Pa. Senate. It’s cosponsored by Camera Bartolotta, a Republican state senator who represents Beaver, Greene, and Washington Counties, and Anthony “Hardy” Williams, a Democratic state senator who reps parts of Philly and Delco.
It would swap Pennsylvania’s juvenile-to-adult court transfer method to a system based on judicial discretion.
The Juvenile Law Center, a Philly-based legal nonprofit that aims to end youth incarceration nationwide, is one of the organizations supporting the policy. Riya Saha Shah, JLC’s managing director, pointed out the context in which statutory exclusion emerged.
“This was in response to a lot of what we saw in the late 80s, and the early 90s, related to the myth of the superpredator,” said Shah. “But it was really on the heels of an increase in violent crime that was attributed to young people.”
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Pennsylvania’s provision passed in 1995, and two years later, 28 states had similar rules in place. Today, the commonwealth is one of 20 states that still have mandatory transfers to adult court on the books.
The superpredator myth was partially premised on youth violence as a growing problem, but this peaked in the late 1980s and early ’90s, according to Shah.
“All that really came out of that era was these ‘get tough’ policies that really harmed children and really pushed more black and brown kids into the criminal system,” Shah said, adding that youth crime “has since decreased significantly.”
Sending minors to adult prison increases recidivism
If the Juvenile Justice Policy Act were law, a prosecutor would have to make the case that the defendants in the Lambert homicide case need to be tried in criminal court and a judge would have to concur — all still very possible outcomes. But since statutory exclusion is still on the books in Pa., adult charges are the only option.
Advocates for the proposed policy shift describe what they view as the detrimental effects of the law, which often ends up with minors serving time in adult prisons.
A 2018 study found that 43% of direct file cases for youth were sent to county jails and 57% were sent to state correctional facilities, according to Marcía Hopkins, senior manager of JLC’s Youth Advocacy Program and Policy.
In those facilities, youth are not getting access to the types of treatment, vocational skills, and educational skills they need to grow and rehabilitate, Hopkins said. And they often end up completely isolated. “What we often see is that kids are in solitary confinement for their quote-unquote ‘own protection,’ so that way they’re away from other adults in adult prisons.”
Solitary confinement has been repeatedly recognized as damaging to people with fully developed brains, making its impact on growing minds even more striking.
Minors who serve sentences in adult facilities are 34 times more likely to reoffend than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system, notes an op-ed from the state senators sponsoring the bill that would change Pa.’s statutory exclusion system.
The op-ed asks a question that ultimately seems obvious: “Why lock kids away when it leads to more recidivism?”
The tragedy of the Lambert homicide is likely to bring more attention to this statute, Hopkins and Shah of the JLC acknowledged.
“To me, it begs the question: Is the [desired] solution to prevent the behavior and make youth accountable?” Hopkins asked. “If that is the solution, adult prisons don’t actually provide that.”