Though he had no record, and was 15 years old, he was charged in adult court.
Bail was set at $75,000. The required 10 percent of that, $7,500, was more than the teen or his mother could fathom.
So, in January 2015, Eugene Lee was sent to an adult jail, Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. It was three months before his mother, Wylicia Clark, 35, of the city's Frankford section, could get the bail reduced to an amount she could pay.
The charges involved an attempted robbery with a BB gun, in which no one was shot and Eugene was not the gunman. It was botched when the victim, an older man, convinced the teens he had a gun himself, and scared them away.
Eugene is home now, and his case has been moved to juvenile court. But he's not the same.
"It did something to him," said Clark, adding that her son's case is ongoing. "He still doesn't sleep at night. He doesn't trust anybody. He's in school, but he's very wary about talking to people in school. He doesn't even want to go outside."
While there is no such thing as money bail for kids in Pennsylvania's juvenile-justice system, for kids the same age, 15 to 17, in the adult criminal justice system, it's a radically different story.
Not only are they virtually always held on money bail (as opposed to released on some other condition, such as house arrest), but their bail amounts are often set extremely high. The average bail assigned in 2016 was $248,000, far outside bail guidelines the courts established in 2012, which recommend bail between $9,000 and $75,000 for the highest-risk offenders charged with the most serious of crimes.
At a time when the city is embarking on a $6.1 million effort in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation to reduce its jail population by one-third, these bail amounts mean almost all juveniles will be locked up for months or years before ever being convicted of a crime.
Out of 46 juveniles charged as adults this year in Philadelphia, 34 had their bail set at least twice as high as the maximum suggested by the court's own bail guidelines. Nine had bail of $500,000 or more. Only four were able to post bail. (Of the seven teens whose bail was set within guidelines, five cases were either quickly withdrawn or moved to juvenile court.)
Studies have found that youth, like adults, are more likely to plead or be found guilty if they're detained, and are more likely to commit crimes in the future. They suffer from increased mental-health issues, including depression and impulses to harm themselves. A Department of Education study found 59 percent of incarcerated youth in remedial programs either didn't return to school after their release or dropped out after five months.
Philadelphia's deputy managing director for criminal justice, Benjamin Lerner, presided over these cases for 15 years as a Common Pleas Court judge. He said he was often outraged by the bail amounts set by commissioners, who determine release conditions by video conference in a security-glass-enclosed courtroom in the basement of the Criminal Justice Center.
"I was yelling and screaming about this from the bench on many occasions," he said. "Not only was the bail set for these juveniles way above the guidelines, but it bore no reasonable relationship to what they were actually charged with doing."
For example, he mentioned cases like Eugene's, where a juvenile was charged in a gunpoint robbery but wasn't the one with the weapon. "Often, the bail was set for the juvenile defendant not only as if they had the weapon, but as if they had used the weapon."
In the juvenile-justice system, defendants are locked up if they pose a danger to themselves or others, if there is no one to care for them, or if they're likely to abscond. Otherwise, they are released. But a Pennsylvania law dating to 1995 calls for teens 15 to 17 charged with certain violent crimes to be sent directly to adult court.
Lerner said there were, at times, cases where he thought it unsafe to release a juvenile. But others didn't pose a threat. None posed a real flight risk, he said: "They aren't going very far if they don't show up. It's annoying and time-consuming, occasionally even dangerous, to go out and find them, but they can be found, and they always are."
Still, Angel Flores, deputy of the juvenile division at the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said his team routinely seeks high bail in such cases. He said it's a public-safety issue, underscored by the very same neuroscience that has driven the U.S. Supreme Court to ban the harshest sentences for juveniles, citing "their immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity."
"You hear the argument all the time about how juveniles are much more impulsive and less concerned about consequences," Flores said. "So you can imagine a young person, a juvenile, who's alleged to have committed an offense with a deadly weapon. That's more concerning than someone who may be a little older and think a little more about what they're going to do with that weapon."
The Constitution's Eighth Amendment bans "excessive bail," and Pennsylvania law says: "No condition of release, whether nonmonetary or monetary, should ever be imposed for the sole purpose of ensuring that a defendant remains incarcerated until trial."
A judge can deny bail in Pennsylvania if public safety is deemed endangered but must state on the record the reasons for that determination. Setting high bail could circumvent that requirement.
So, for juveniles, "it feels like the default is to be in [jail]," said Lauren Fine, cofounder of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, which advocates for youth in the adult system. "I think the system views these kids differently from every other group - that they're the worst of the worst. We're beyond the idea of 'the superpredator,' but there's still the thinking that these are really bad kids and we're going to treat them that way."
She said it usually takes at least three months to have a bail-reduction hearing; many of her juvenile clients have been locked up three years pretrial.
Lerner hopes the MacArthur grant work will address questions like "whether or not amounts of money, or money bail in general, really have anything to do with either a defendant's risk to the community or a defendant's risk of flight." The city's plan includes early bail review for nonviolent cases where bail is set below $50,000; more thorough legal representation at bail hearings; and the creation of a risk-assessment tool for setting bail.
An April Columbia University study, which analyzed cases in Philadelphia from 2005 to 2010, underscored what impacts of bail are known: Imposing money bail made it 6 percent more likely a defendant would plead guilty, and 4 percent more likely that he or she would re-offend.
That effect includes even small bail amounts. Sarah Morris, who works with youth in the adult system through the nonprofit Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, said she's seen cases dismissed or withdrawn after teens spent months in jail. By then, she said, "their life is disrupted, and many more obstacles exist for them. I've known a lot of young people who had trouble getting their credits to transfer when they came home." Some dropped out of school as a result.
In Philadelphia, those teens are held in adult jail on State Road. Some other counties in Pennsylvania keep juveniles charged as adults in juvenile jails, Fine said.
That might have been helpful for Eugene.
Even after his bail was reduced, for the second time, to $4,000, his mother had to scramble to raise 10 percent, or $400. The residential aide, who has six children, borrowed some of it from her brother.
She was relieved to get her son home, but noticed he can't seem to concentrate in school. He'd like to drop out, maybe be homeschooled instead.
He still dreams of being a lawyer or a counselor, so he can help people.
But first, Clark said, "we got to get over the fear."