Pa.’s legal system sent me to adult jail as a child. Lawmakers should protect other children from that trauma. | Opinion
Youth prosecuted as adults have far higher recidivism rates than youth whose cases remain in the juvenile system.
When I was 16, I was charged as an adult and put in adult jail. I’d never been arrested before, and suddenly I found myself in a dirty cell, with $200,000 bail and no idea what was going to happen to me.
Jail was extremely stressful. It disrupted my education and all my life goals. My mother suffered from deep depression while I was locked up — not knowing if her youngest son would be sent away to an adult prison for years. I wasn’t able to see my first child being born, which took a big toll. I lost nearly a year of my life, away from family and everyone who loves and supports me.
Worst of all, I was treated as if I didn’t matter. When I asked to speak to a counselor, jail staff refused my request. If I continued to ask, they threatened me with solitary confinement. They never showed patience or care toward me. They didn’t treat us like kids or even adults — they didn’t treat us as humans.
I was held in an adult jail for eight months — my entire junior year of high school — before a judge decided to “decertify” my case and transfer it to juvenile court. Once my case reached juvenile court, the matter was resolved within a month and I was allowed to return home on probation, reenroll in my neighborhood school, get a part-time job, and continue my life.
If you’ve never been through the system, you might wonder how it could take nearly a year for the courts to transfer my case. Why didn’t they charge me as a juvenile initially? Why then expose me to the dangers of adult jail? The answer is frustrating but simple: Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice laws are broken and backwards.
In 1995, fueled by the racist and widely discredited “superpredator” myth, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed Act 33, known as “direct file” because it allows cases to be filed against children directly in adult court, without review by a judge. Many prosecutors interpret this law to mean they must charge anyone 15 and older in adult court for certain charges. The burden is then on the young person and their defense attorney to prove that they can be treated in the juvenile system. But Pennsylvania lawmakers have a chance to change this, and to make sure no other children experience the trauma and isolation I faced.
Last month, after a year of studying the state’s juvenile justice system, the bipartisan Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force recommended repealing Pennsylvania’s direct file laws so that all children’s cases originate in the juvenile system. They further recommended stricter limits on when a child’s case can be transferred to adult court, and barring the prosecution of anyone under age 16 as an adult. The task force made these recommendations after hearing from youth leaders of the Care, Not Control campaign — including myself — about the incredible damage direct file laws have wreaked on children statewide.
If enacted into law, these recommendations would still allow a juvenile court judge to transfer some cases to adult court, but they would prevent the unnecessary harm caused when hundreds of children are automatically sent into the adult system. This would put the burden on prosecutors to demonstrate why a young person should be charged as an adult, instead of on young people to prove they should be treated as children.
“When a young person commits harm, the answer is not to harm that young person in response.”
Decades of research show us that policies that treat children as adults are bad for all of us. Youth prosecuted as adults have far higher recidivism rates than youth whose cases remain in the juvenile system. And, as in every layer of the criminal justice system, direct file laws are deeply unequal in their impact. While Black teenagers make up only 14% of Pennsylvania’s youth population, they account for 58% of youth prosecuted as adults.
Ending the state’s direct file laws would mark a huge shift for Pennsylvania. Twenty-four states have begun to make this shift — with California, Florida, Oregon, and Vermont fully repealing automatic transfer laws. The task force’s recommendations give us hope that Pennsylvania will join these states at the forefront of rethinking bad policy decisions that have harmed thousands of children and have not made our communities safer.
When a young person commits harm, the answer is not to harm that young person in response — we all lose in that equation. Lawmakers must step up and adopt the task force’s recommendation to end Pennsylvania’s direct file laws and treat kids as kids, moving us toward a system that responds with the healing, hope, and support every young person needs to grow and do better.
David Harrington is an organizer with the Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project.