Historical Shift for Juveniles – Less Teens Facing Adult Courts

June 9, 2022 Criminal Defense, Juvenile Offenses

When a teenager is accused of a crime, it is typical that they are tried through the juvenile justice system. However, there are instances in which even a minor can be charged as an adult. This can be extremely stressful for a young teen who has been accused of a crime and may get sent to an adult court and jail.

However, in recent years, a lot of states have tried to update the age of criminal responsibility to be higher, to try and give adolescents chances to go through other options rather than being sent to an adult jail. Now more teens are getting sent to juvenile courts, or are offered community programs to complete. This is to change the focus towards counseling and other services to keep them out of trouble rather than assuming adult jail will prevent recidivism.

We will cover the recent statistics on adults and criminal charges, the opposition against the shift away from harsh punishment for teens, and what a brighter future can look like with the right criminal defense.   

Statistics on Teens and Adult Court

Within the last several years, the percentage of teens who are taken to adult courts has seen significant decreases. In 2019 the percentage of youths in adult courts dropped from 8% to 2%, and in 2020 it had fallen down to 1%; however, it is important to note that the year’s data is unusual due to COVID-19.

One of the main reasons for the “raise the age” mentality for juveniles in adult courts is a result of research highlighting that teenagers’ brains are not yet fully developed. This implies that they are unable to make decisions in a thought-out manner.

Looking at the mental and physical health of teens, there is data to show that getting locked up in an adult system is extremely harmful. Sending teens to adult courts and prisons also puts them at a higher risk of committing more crimes in the future.

According to the nonprofit National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, the early 2000s saw an estimated 250,000 minors getting charged as adults yearly. In comparison, the year 2019 only saw about 53,000 young teens getting arrested and charged as adults.

The Justice Department shows a general decrease in crimes from 2010-2019, falling as low as 58% fewer teens. The estimated number of youths arrested in 2019 was 696,620. Even with opposition against the more lenient outlook on teens who commit crime, there is supposedly no link between higher ages and adult courts. The concern from the opposition is that increasing the criminal liability age to 18 will also increase the rate of crime. However, Professor Giovanni Circo, a professor at the University of New Haven, completed a study on youths and crime, and found that there is no connection between raising the age of responsibility to 18 years-old and crime rates.  

Example Case

David Harrington, 24, was arrested in 2014 for a robbery charge in Philadelphia. Harrington was only 16 at the time, but his case was automatically sent to the adult court system under the state’s law. Harrington denied having any involvement in the robbery but was originally sent to the juvenile section of the adult jail in the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. Philadelphia falls under one of several states that automatically sends teens to adult courts for certain crimes. At the time Harrington was looking at a potential five to ten years in adult prison.

Harrington highlighted his experience in the adult jail as a not pleasant one. He claims he had to constantly be on guard for his safety and well-being, having gotten into two fights. One fight even led him to 30 days of solitary confinement, which Harrington says was extremely difficult for his mental health. The agency claimed that there was no documentation that he ever served solitary confinement.

Harrington believed if he had continued to stay in the adult prison, he was headed down a path toward more trouble with the law:

“I think if I would have stayed in the adult system, I would have came home probably a little worse. I would have came home [after] listening to the ways on how to get better at…certain illegal things, and I would have came home and been doing nonsense.”

Instead of staying in the adult jail, Harrington was able to persuade the judge to move his case down to the juvenile court. After spending only a month in a juvenile detention center, the judge decided to place him on house arrest instead. He also received probation and a $3,000 restitution order. This gave Harrington the ability to still see his family, and finish attending school.

The case of Harrington is just one example of how certain states are starting to move away from the “get tough” mentality when it comes to young offenders. As opposed to the 80s and 90s when the trend was more popular, now fewer adolescents are getting prosecuted in the adult courts. What this means for the youth is the option of a second chance at going down the right path.

However, not everyone agrees with this shift.

Opposition in the Reform

Even though a large majority of law enforcement support the shift with young offenders staying out of adult courts and jail, there is some worry that the leniency will only embolden teens to commit crimes. Specifically in Connecticut, where lawmakers have passed legislation to crack down on crime by youths.

There are three states that still have not risen the age of adult criminal responsibility—Texas, Georgia, and Wisconsin. All three states still consider 17 years-old as appropriate to prosecute in the adult courts.

Last year in Connecticut, there was a pedestrian was killed by a teenager who had stolen a car. The 17-year-old teen was a repeat offender, having been arrested 13 times previously for charges including assault and reckless driving.

The police chief of New Britain, Christopher Chute, said he believed the teen would have been detained in the adult system for his previous charges before Connecticut raised the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years-old ten years ago.

“Talk about a broken juvenile justice system,” Chute said. “Most of us in law enforcement refer to this system as the arrest, release, repeat.”

Brighter Future For Teens Staying out of Adult Jail

Harrington is now working towards getting the robbery charge expunged from his juvenile record. He currently works for the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project in Philadelphia, which uses art, music, and other creative programs in jail for teens who have been charged as adults. It also advocates against the prosecution of the youths as adults in court.

“When you’re in jail, no matter how much you stay out of trouble, trouble will find you,” Harrington said. “You’ve got to go into survival mode at a very young age. That’s not a place…for a kid.”

University of New Haven criminal justice professor Giovanni Circo gave the following comment regarding the age of adult criminal liability:

“Not discounting anything that some of these communities are dealing with, which I’m sure is really frustrating and dangerous, but when we look at more widespread impacts of these sorts of policies we just don’t find any real evidence that it has any sort of impact on overall crime rates.”

It is extremely important for juveniles to receive the proper representation in a case. The best way to ensure you are getting quality defense is to reach out to a skilled criminal defense attorney in your area.

Florida’s Direct File Statute

Under Florida Statutes Sections 985.556, 985.557, and 985.56, a child may be transferred to adult court via a judicial waiver, indictment by a grand jury, or direct filing.  Direct filling is the most common way that juveniles end up in adult court. Florida Statute Section 985.557 is the direct file statute.

Prosecutors have broad discretion to use the direct file statute as long as the following criteria are met:

  • If the child was 14 or 15 years old when the offense was committed, then the prosecutor may direct file the child to adult court when the offense charged is:
  • If the child was 16 or 17 years old when the offense was committed, the prosecutor may direct file the child to adult court when the offense charge is:
    • A felony
    • Any misdemeanor if the child has two previous convictions, one of the previous convictions has to have been a felony

Once a case has been direct filed, there is no going back. The child will be treated as an adult by the criminal justice system. Overall, the number of arrests and direct files have fallen in recent years. According to the Department of Juvenile Justice, in 2016 there were 64,919 juvenile arrests and 1,498 transfers to adult court compared to 2020 there were 31,612 arrests and 937 transfers to adult court.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you are a minor who has gotten in trouble with the law or are the parent of a juvenile who has been accused of a crime in Florida, it is imperative that you reach out to a skilled attorney in your area. Considering that Florida has one of the highest rates of minors charged as adults, it is important that you have a skilled Florida criminal defense attorney on your side to help guide you through the legal process. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have represented clients of all ages across the state of Florida. We can help try to ensure that your case remains in the juvenile system rather than getting tried as an adult, and work towards gaining your freedom. For a free consultation call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message today.

Written by Karissa Key

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