Punishments for Juvenile Crimes in Pennsylvania
Punishments for Juvenile Crimes in Pennsylvania
In the legal arena, juvenile criminals and their punishment have always been a hot topic. Every so often, a particularly brutal case shocks the world — cases like Jon Venables, or Mary Bell — and leaves us all pondering the question of how young people ought to be handled when they commit crimes. While Venables and Bell are extreme outliers, juveniles do commit crimes, just as adults commit crimes. But where is the line between child and criminal? What happens to juveniles who break the law?
Protection for Juveniles
In 2009 in the state of Pennsylvania, per 100,000 population, over 17,000 arrests of juveniles were made — almost one in five. Juveniles are defined as youth between the ages of 10 and 17, and their cases must be heard in juvenile court as opposed to “regular” adult court. Under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system, they are not allowed to be held in adult prisons while awaiting their court hearings. Adults, conversely, may be held in jail prior to a hearing for up to 90 days.
It should be noted, however, that juveniles are not completely armored. Juveniles charged as adults can, like adults, be held in adult jails prior to their hearings. They can also be jailed if they fail to attend their own hearings. Furthermore, juvenile judges can refer a case to a regular court.
Types of Juvenile Offenses in Pennsylvania
The first and most minor type of juvenile offenses is a delinquent act. In a delinquent act, the act committed would be considered a crime if it had been committed by an adult. If the child is found guilty of committing a delinquent act, they are judged in juvenile, not adult, court.
A summary offense is not considered to be an act of delinquency, but a full-blown crime, and will be tried with the adult criminal code. In summary offenses, juveniles are treated essentially like adults; though unlike adults, they cannot legally be held in an adult prison while awaiting their hearing. Summary offenses are considered less serious than misdemeanors or felonies, and describe relatively minor crimes, such as underage drinking or disorderly conduct.
How the Juvenile Justice System Works and Punishes Offenders in Pennsylvania
When minors are charged with a crime, they are put through a separate system. Under this system, instead of being charged criminally, getting a criminal record, and going to jail, juvenile offenders are put through a quasi-civil, quasi-criminal system called the juvenile justice system. Each county administers its system a bit differently, but they have some of the same basic functions and systems in place.
Arrest and Jail
When juveniles are arrested, they are usually arrested by full-fledged police officers. Officers do not always know how old someone is when they first encounter them, so it usually is not until the arrest is made and the defendant’s ID is checked that they find out the person is a minor. There are exceptions, however, when the police are called to investigate someone they know to be a child, when the encounter happens at school, or when the child is obviously very young. Sometimes juveniles are arrested by student resource officers placed in schools, who likely already know they are working with a child and potentially adapt their policing strategies accordingly.
Once arrested, the child may be taken to jail initially. However, if they are to be kept for any prolonged period, they are usually taken to a nearby juvenile detention facility instead of an adult jail. Here, they are put with other minors and staff trained to work with minors.
Release from Detention Center
Children are not allowed to be kept in detention in Pennsylvania without a hearing every 10 days. In most cases, children are released into the custody of their parents much sooner than that. They also may be placed under certain conditions when they are released, often involving monitoring and check-ins until their case can be put before a judge.
In most cases, juveniles are taken to court as soon as possible – possibly directly from detention – to have their terms of release set and potentially even face adjudication right away. It is not typically in the government’s interest to keep children locked up in jail, so alternative systems like juvenile probation are in place.
Adjudication in Court
Juvenile offenders are not “found guilty” – instead, they are “adjudicated delinquent.” This is done without a jury. Instead, a judge (or sometimes a “master” – a lawyer appointed by a judge) hears the case and decides whether or not the facts are true and whether the allegations align with the definition of a crime.
Juveniles are entitled to an adjudication hearing, during which the prosecutors must put on evidence and prove the case. The juvenile defendant is entitled to a lawyer at this stage, and parents can elect to use a lawyer of their choice that they have hired instead of a public defender.
Sometimes, adjudication will not be necessary, and the court will instead release the child from the system with the understanding that they do not pose a threat and do not need adjudication. Other times, the prosecutors may decide that the offense was very serious, and they may try to have the juvenile tried as an adult.
Rather than jailing juveniles, the court usually places them in a system of juvenile probation. For some serious crimes, time in a detention facility or adult jail may be possible. Other facilities for troubled youths might also be recommend if the child needs additional structure, schooling, or opportunities.
When placed on juvenile probation, a child is released to their parent or guardian but must report to their assigned probation officer. This often means periodic calls and weekly meetings to discuss their progress, seek drug testing, and face other elements of their court-ordered supervision. Some counties have school-based programs where the juvenile can meet their PO at school.
Sometimes, GPS ankle monitors are used, at the juvenile’s expense, to allow additional freedom to go to work, school, or church while still being monitored.
Juveniles remain on juvenile probation until the court is satisfied that they can make decisions for themselves and avoid future crime. Rehabilitation is the ultimate goal of this process instead of punishment. However, many juveniles remain on probation into adulthood. If, at that stage, they are arrested for additional crimes, they may be put in violation of probation, discharged from the juvenile justice system, and sent to jail as adults on their new charges.
How a Juvenile Defense Lawyer Can Help in Pennsylvania
The goal of any defense lawyer is to protect their client from unjust charges and penalties. In the juvenile justice system, however, the best interests of the child may actually involve participation in the system – which should always be supervised by a defense lawyer.
Most of the “penalties” for juvenile offenders do not involve actual punishment. Instead, there is a focus on community service, education, and reform to help them avoid future criminal encounters. Sometimes, participation in that system is somewhat necessary and can help a juvenile defendant grow and avoid future crime.
Other times, the system is unnecessary. If the juvenile court and police officers try to direct their resources and time at a juvenile who does not need these services, is at a low risk of future criminality, and simply made a minor mistake, the entire process could be a waste of time. Our Pennsylvania juvenile defense lawyers seek to help these kinds of clients beat the charges against them and avoid involvement with the juvenile justice system.
In many cases, issues of mistaken identity or misunderstandings should not result in criminal charges or juvenile charges. In these cases, you may need a lawyer to help prove that your child was not involved in the alleged events.
It may also be better to convince the court to drop juvenile charges and allow things like destruction of property or a fistfight gone wrong to be handled in civil court or small claims court instead of through a quasi-criminal process. Our attorneys can step in, present evidence and arguments, and seek to have the best outcome for your particular case achieved.
When Are Juveniles Charged as Adults?
In Pennsylvania, juveniles will be tried in adult courts in two scenarios:
- They were 15 years of age or older at the time of the offense, and they either used a deadly weapon or had been previously charged with a serious crime such as rape, robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, or manslaughter.
- They were charged with murder.
It’s unpleasant to think of a teenager committing an act of murder — but it happens. And when it does, things get complicated. Pennsylvania law decrees that murder in the first or second degree must be punished with a life sentence. However, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that life imprisonment for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of constitutional rights. This has offered a glimmer of hope for some 400 juveniles jailed for life throughout Pennsylvania, who may now become eligible for parole.
Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers Offering Free Consultations
If your child is facing criminal charges, you need an aggressive attorney on your side. Our attorneys have handled thousands of cases and have decades of experience to offer. Don’t wait — contact us today.