By Dave Collins – The Associated Press
David Harrington spent eight tense months in a Philadelphia prison as a teenager – the result of a 2014 robbery charge that automatically sent his case to the adult court system under state law.
He said he was only 16 years old at the time, getting into a fight and spending some time in isolation. He missed his second year of high school and the birth of his child. He was facing five to 10 years in prison. He said he was on his way to more trouble with the law.
“I think if I had stayed in the adult system, I might have come home a little worse,” said Harrington, now 24, who works as an advocate for young offenders. “I would go home (after) hearing the ways on how to get better at…some illegal stuff, and I’d go home and do shit.”
Instead, he was able to persuade the judge to refer his case to the juvenile court. He spent a month in a juvenile detention center before a judge found out he had actually participated in the robbery and sent him home under house arrest and probation and ordered $3,000 in compensation. He was allowed to see his family and friends and to finish high school.
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The Harrington case from 2015 marks a significant shift away from the 1980s and 1990s “be strict” philosophy of young criminals, which resulted in far fewer children being tried in US adult courts. This means second chances for countless thousands of young people.
Data reported to the FBI each year by thousands of police departments across the country shows that the percentage of young detainees referred to adult courts dropped from 8% in 2010 to 2% in 2019. The percentage dropped to 1 % in 2020, although the data for that year is considered unusual due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has closed many courts.
Instead, more teens are sent to juvenile courts or community programs that direct them to counseling, peer mediation, and other services aimed at keeping them out of trouble.
This shift has mostly been supported by law enforcement officials across the country. But some worried that the leniency encouraged a small number of young criminals, including in Connecticut, Where state legislators passed legislation To crack down on youth crimes.
States across the country have raised the age of criminal responsibility for adults to 18 for most crimes. Only three states — Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin — continue to try every 17-year-old in adult courts, according to the Judgment Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for minimal incarceration of young adults and adults.
The ‘Life Raising’ movement was driven Research Show Teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed yet major decision-making functions. Other studies show Locking young people into adults’ systems can be harmful – both physically and psychologically – as well as putting them at greater risk of committing further crimes.
“We see across the board for young people, no matter what they may be tasked with, that what works is community-based intervention, and what works is connecting young people to people in their communities, and allowing communities to lead reform efforts,” Naomi said. Smoot Evans, executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to prevent children from engaging in court.
In a country where an estimated 250,000 minors were charged as adults each year in the early 2000s, the number in 2019 dropped to about 53,000, according to the nonprofit National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.
That corresponds to an overall decrease in the crime rate across the country, including a 58% decrease in youth arrests between 2010 and 2019, according to Department of Justice estimates. In 2019, an estimated 696,620 youths were arrested.
Harrington, who denied the allegations of theft, was initially sent to the juvenile department of an adult prison, Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, under state law that automatically refers youths to adult court for certain serious crimes. He faced the possibility of imprisonment from five to 10 years.
He said he had to constantly watch his back to protect from other people’s assault and got into two fights. After one, he said he was held in solitary confinement for 30 days, which affected his mental health.
“Your hair is completely growing out. You hardly get any showers. You’re just in the dark in bed. They don’t really hear you there,” he said.
The Philadelphia Prison Service said in a statement it acknowledged Harrington’s recollection but that there was “no documentation” of the experiences he described. The agency said he was subject to disciplinary dismissal – not solitary confinement – for the fights he was involved in.
He said the theft charge was expunged from Harrington’s juvenile register after he filed an application.
Harrington works for the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, a Philadelphia group that provides art, music, and other programs in prison for teens accused as adults and advocates for their prosecution in adult court. He participates in efforts to repeal the law that automatically sent him to adult prison.
“You’d rather be in a juvenile home and receive proper care and treatment there,” he said. “The event system…better because you can go home and stay with your family.”
But some officials, including lawmakers and police chiefs, argue aspects of the reform have gone too far.
In Connecticut, the murder of a pedestrian struck by a stolen car in New Britain last year led by a repeat teen offender led to calls from police officials and state Republican lawmakers for tougher youth crime laws — including more detentions for repeat offenders. .
The 17-year-old driver of the stolen car who killed Henrik Godelsky in New Britain has been arrested 13 times before on charges including reckless driving and assault.
New Britain’s police chief, Christopher Shute, believes the teen would have been held in the adult system for those past crimes before Connecticut raised the age of criminal responsibility for adults to 18 a decade ago. He also said state judges are denying many police requests to detain young offenders.
“Talk about a broken juvenile justice system,” Schott said. “Most of us in law enforcement refer to this system as arrest, release, and repeat.”
Giovanni Circo, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, authored a 2019 study that found no link between raising the age of criminal responsibility for adults to 18 and an increase in crime.
“Not excluding anything that some of these communities are dealing with, and I’m sure it’s really frustrating and dangerous, but when we look at the more pervasive effects of this type of policy we don’t really find any evidence of any kind of impact on overall crime rates.
For Harrington, prisons and jails aren’t places for kids, period.
“When you’re in prison, no matter how much you stay out of trouble, trouble will get you,” said Harrington. “You have to get into survival mode at a very young age. This is not a place… for a child.”
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