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I am proof that children shouldn’t be prosecuted in adult court | Opinion

I often wondered: Why doesn’t anyone care that I’m a kid held in an adult jail? Why is my bail set at $520,000, which is so much higher than it would be for an adult accused of the same actions and far more than my family can afford?

William Bentley speaks at a rally.
William Bentley speaks at a rally.Read moreHandout (custom credit)

In December 2018, I was sitting in a jail cell, staring at four walls, a table, and a window a few inches wide. I would lie awake for hours, waiting for the door to open. When it did, I’d get hot water to make oatmeal for breakfast. At the time, I was 18 years old. I did this routine for a year. The district attorney offered me a deal: 7½ to 15 years in adult state prison.

That was at least seven more summers and winters. I didn’t want to lose so much time by taking a guilty plea for a crime I didn’t commit. But I knew that if I lost at trial, they could give me even more time.

I often wondered: Why doesn’t anyone care that I’m a kid held in an adult jail? Why is my bail set at $520,000, which is so much higher than it would be for an adult accused of the same actions and far more than my family can afford?

One day, I was visited by two representatives from Philadelphia Community Bail Fund (PCBF) who said they wanted to post bail for me and other young people being tried as adults as part of their partnership with the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP). I asked if they were sure. They were sure. They said that my lawyer filed for a bail reduction and once it was granted, they posted it.

When PCBF paid my bail, they changed my court case’s outcome and my life. Once I arrived home, I got to work. Within a month, I was working as a youth organizer with YASP. I talked to young people in schools, explaining my story and helping them stay out of the system. I canvassed and worked to repeal the laws that allowed me to be placed in an adult jail as a young person. At my first speaking engagement, I addressed 1,200 audience members and 20 City Council candidates. I helped launch the first youth Participatory Defense hub in the nation, where I support other young people and their families in navigating the court system every week.

I took off running and never looked back. I jumped so deeply into youth advocacy that I almost forgot about my trial. When it arrived, I had been organizing with YASP for eight months and had built a broad support network. Before my hearing, my attorney submitted letters of support from 13 people, including one City Council member. The Participatory Defense hub made a 25-minute video showcasing everything I accomplished since coming home. With all that to consider, the prosecutor made a new offer: house arrest with approval to work and probation. No additional jail time.

If PCBF and YASP didn’t post my bail, I would probably be in state prison right now.

No young person should be tried as an adult or held in adult jail. While the number of youth held in the city’s adult jails fell to single digits earlier last year, the numbers have climbed back up in recent months, peaking in early December at 29 children sitting in Philadelphia’s adult jails, waiting for their day in court.

We need our elected officials — prosecutors, judges, the mayor, City Council — to do better. They can do this by bringing the city into compliance with the reauthorized Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act, a federal law forbidding the placement of children in adult jails, and by urging state lawmakers to repeal Act 33, the state law that allows 15-year-old kids to be prosecuted in adult court. They should work together to make Philadelphia a city that never puts children in cages.

In the meantime, we must do everything we can to bring more kids home so every young person has the same chance at freedom and success that I had. That’s why I work with YASP to help young people held in adult facilities. That’s also why I work with PCBF to bring them home. This year, like last year, both organizations are partnering to post bail for the young people who need our help the most, who should be in school or at home, instead of sitting in adult jail on impossibly high bails.

The city must stop charging young people as adults and must stop holding people in jail because they cannot afford bail.

William Bentley is a youth organizer with the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project and a member of the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund.