Young people are different from adults. They have different needs from adults and a unique ability to change and grow. Whenever possible, young people who make mistakes and are accused of crimes should be kept in the juvenile justice system, instead of being sent directly to adult prisons. Under Act 33, young people 15 and older can be tried directly in adult court for a number of crimes. Youth tried as adults in Philadelphia are held in the adult county jails while they await trial. More than 40% of "direct file" cases in Philadelphia are eventually sent to juvenile court through a decertification hearing. The waiting period for a decertification hearing can range from several months to a year. Act 33 results in hundreds of teenagers spending significant periods of time in adult jails even if their case will eventually be transferred to juvenile court. Young people in adult jails and prisons are significantly more likely to be abused by guards, to be assaulted by other prisoners, and to attempt to harm themselves than youth in juvenile facilities. Studies have shown also that time spent in an adult jail makes a young person under 18 more likely to be rearrested in the future. Trying young people directly as adults is bad for young people, bad for public safety, and bad for all of us.
I am writing to support the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP) and their campaign to keep young people out of adult prisons. I am asking you to take a stand for young people in our community and to focus your legislative energy on providing young people with the tools they need to make better, safer decisions, instead of locking up our future and throwing away the key. I am writing to urge you to introduce legislation to repeal Act 33, a 1996 amendment to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act that allows prosecutors to charge children as young as 15 years old directly in adult court and send them directly to adult jail while they await trial.
Children are fundamentally different from adults, and many of our systems and institutions of governance emphasize this distinction. The criminal justice system, however, fails to recognize this inherent difference in its practice of trying youth as adults and incarcerating youth in adult prisons. Recent landmark cases such as Roper v. Simmons in 2005 and Graham v. Florida in 2010 have all required courts to recognize the differences between young people and adults when imposing the most severe sentences. A child’s age is far more than a chronological fact; it bears directly on the child’s constitutional rights and status in the justice system. In declaring that courts could not impose some of the harshest sentences on young people, the Supreme Court recognized that young people bear a different level of responsibility for, and understanding of, their actions from a fully grown adult. The court also recognized the unique ability to change that exists in a young person. Act 33 excludes from consideration the extraordinary capacity of youth to change, mature and rehabilitate. Even if a 15-year-old is accused of a crime that seems like an “adult crime”, his needs are still the needs of a child. The juvenile justice system is designed to punish a young person while at the same time maintaining a strong focus on rehabilitation and providing that young person with the supports necessary to succeed in his life. The adult criminal justice system, on the other hand, has grown to focus almost exclusively on punishment. Young people do need to face consequences if they commit a crime, but they also need to be given the support and tools to make a better decision next time.
Young people are significantly more likely to be abused while in adult prisons. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, adolescents under the age of eighteen are at a higher risk of sexual victimization than any other incarcerated group in the adult prison system. Studies found that 21% of all substantiated victims of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual violence in adult jails in 2005 were youth under the age of eighteen. These statistics speak to a disturbingly disproportionate degree of representation among youth; youth comprise only 1% of the population in adult prisons. In these settings, jail officials can do little to keep youth safe from assault. Although the juvenile justice system requires that youth remain removed from adult jails or at least sight-and-sound separated, this regulation does not apply to youth prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. Children are placed in extreme danger by the same institution intended to “rehabilitate” them. A devastating lose-lose situation, youth can either be placed among the general population where they face substantial risk of sexual and physical assault or they can be kept segregated in isolated or solitary confinement where they face different but equally harmful risks. Detained in small cells with no natural light for up to 23 hours a day, studies show that youth kept in isolation often suffer from anxiety, paranoia and depression. Isolation can also exacerbate preexisting mental disorders that consequently go without adequate treatment due to the lack of adolescent-appropriate services in the adult prison system. The Campaign for Youth Justice found that youth housed in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in juvenile correctional facilities.
Perhaps most importantly, trying young people as adults simply does not work. In 2007, the Centers for Disease and Prevention conducted a review of policies across the country that transfer young people under 18 to the adult criminal justice system. The CDC report found that transferring youth to adult court actually significantly increases the likelihood that they will be re-arrested in the future. In the words of the report, “to the extent that transfer policies are implemented to reduce violent or criminal behavior, available evidence indicates that they do more harm than good.” This is, in part, because transfer laws like Act 33 fail to address the origins of the offense; instead, they gloss over the real issues at hand – underfunded education, dearth of opportunity to acquire social capital, poverty and peer pressure – with a shiny promise to get tough on crime, to lock them up and throw away the key so we can be safe. They also take young people who are in the most need of support and guidance, and throw them into a system in which they are much less likely to receive either.
When we take a young person at the age of 15, lock him up in an adult prison for five, ten, or fifteen years, and then release him to the streets with minimal education, few social supports, and a felony record, what results do we expect? By funneling children into the adult prison system at such a young age, we are effectively cutting off their access to the building blocks of a successful life before they even know those resources exist.
If you do not take action to repeal Act 33, you will be supporting the same worn-out criminal justice policies that have not made a dent in Philadelphia's murder rate. We must recognize that, most of the time, young people do not become involved in violent crime unless we have failed them in some fundamental ways. We can only have a real impact on addressing youth crime and violence if we begin to address why young people become involved in crime in the first place.
We must craft criminal justice policies with an eye towards what actually works and begin to provide our young people with the opportunities and support they need, so that we all might be able to live in the safe, peaceful communities we deserve. Repealing Act 33 and keeping our young people out of adult prisons is the first step.