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Amid Crime Rise, Prosecutors Defend Trying Juveniles As Adults

In some states, juveniles are automatically charged in adult court for certain serious crimes. It's a practice known as direct file. In Pennsylvania, there is a push to change that rule to prevent children from ending up with adult records, reports PBS News Hour.

Andre Simms, 26, was charged at 17 with attempted murder, and ended up spending eight years in an adult prison after his case was sent to an adult court. As a minor, Simms was separated from adult inmates, but that meant being held in solitary confinement.

Simms recalls, "Imagine being locked in your bathroom, no phone, no TV, nobody to talk to. That is your existence. You try to keep yourself busy. You try to work out, or read, do something. But, a lot of the times, you are in your own thoughts. You're in your head. And I experienced, like, intense, very intense depression, very intense anxiety. It got to the point where I wanted to harm myself."

When youths are charged as adults and held in adult facilities, research shows they are far more likely to die from suicide, and at the highest risk of being sexually abused. When they eventually get out, they're left with an adult record and all of the consequences that come with that.

Says Simms, "Because you have this felony on your record, you can't go back to certain schools. You can't go get the education to better yourself to get the job that's going to get you the property. And so that creates this cycle, these barriers at every step. And it's not surprising that the majority of people who go to these prisons go back to crime, go back to causing harm."

The juvenile justice system was created in the early 20th century on the understanding that kids should be treated differently from adults on the belief that a mistake made as a youth should not dictate the rest of a life.

In the 1980s and '90s, a spike in violent crime challenged that idea, and policymakers turned away from rehabilitating young people to punishing them harshly.

Then first lady Hillary Clinton said, "They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super predators, no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about how they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."

In 1995, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law that directed prosecutors to file charges against young people 15 and over in adult court if they committed particular violent felonies, especially if they're repeat offenders or used a deadly weapon.

Republican State Senator Camera Bartolotta co-chairs the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus in the Pennsylvania legislature. She has introduced a bill that would end "direct file" in the state.

Ending direct file was one of more than recommendations made by a bipartisan Juvenile Justice Task Force last year. One of its key findings was the large racial disparities in which youth are charged as adults.

Black male youths make up seven percent of the state's youth population, but account for 56 percent of minors convicted as adults. The task force detailed how kids who are charged as adults are more likely to reoffend, compared to those kept within the juvenile system.

Despite bipartisan support, Bartolotta's bill to end direct file has not passed this legislative session. One key reason is the opposition of district attorneys like Jack Stollsteimer a Democrat in Delaware County, just outside Philadelphia.

Says Stollsteimer, "I think this is the wrong time for this question to even be on the table, which is why you don't see the legislature moving."

Philadelphia has seen shootings increase by nearly 80 percent since 2019, including several high-profile ones involving teenagers, like the shooting in September after a high school football scrimmage that left a 14-year-old dead and four other teenagers wounded.

Stollsteimer says, "I think that there are people over the age of 15, when they're committing rape, when they're committing murder, when they're committing aggravated assault, and they're doing it with a deadly weapon, I think we have to start by saying you have now lost, you have jettisoned your ability to start in the juvenile system, because what we're all trying to do ... is figure out, what's best for that child, balanced by what's best for public safety. The community has a right to be safe from that child as well."


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