In a historic shift, far fewer teenagers are serving in adult courts in the United States

David Harrington spent eight tense months in a Philadelphia jail as a teenager — the result of a 2014 robbery indictment that automatically escalated his case to the state-law adult court system.

Only 16 at the time, he said he was involved in fights and spent time in isolation. He missed his sophomore year and the birth of his child. He faced five to ten years in prison. He’s on his way to more trouble with the law, he said.

“I think if I had stayed in the adult system, I probably would have come home a little worse,” said Harrington, now 24, who works as a young offenders advocate. “I would have come home after listening to how to get better at … certain illegal things, and I would have come home doing nonsense.”

Instead, he was able to persuade a judge to refer his case to juvenile court. He spent a month in a juvenile detention center before a judge found he was involved in the robbery and sent him home under house arrest, probation and a $3,000 restitution order. He was allowed to see his family and friends and finish high school.


Harrington’s 2015 case marks a marked departure from the “get tough” philosophy for juvenile delinquents of the 1980s and ’90s, which has resulted in far fewer children being prosecuted in US adult courts. This has given countless young people a second chance.

Data reported to the FBI by thousands of police departments across the country each year shows that the percentage of detained juveniles who have been referred to adult courts has fallen from 8% in 2010 to 2% in 2019. The percentage dropped to 1% in 2020, although this year’s data is considered unusual due to the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down many courts.

Instead, more teenagers are being sent to juvenile courts or community programs that direct them to counseling, peer mediation, and other services designed to keep them out of trouble.

The move was largely supported by law enforcement officials across the country. But some fear leniency has encouraged a small number of young criminals, including in Connecticut, where state legislatures passed laws curbing juvenile delinquency.


States across the country have raised the adult age of criminal responsibility to 18 for most crimes. Only three states — Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin — continue to prosecute every 17-year-old in adult courts, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for minimal incarceration for juveniles and adults.

This spurred the Raise the Age movement research indicates Teenage brains are not fully developed important decision-making functions. Other studies show Locking young people up in adult systems can be harmful — physically and psychologically — and put them at greater risk of committing more crimes.


“We see across the board for young people, regardless of what they are accused of, that community-based intervention works, connecting young people with people in their own communities and enabling communities to lead reform efforts,” said Naomi Smoot Evans, Executive Director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to keeping children out of court.

In a country where an estimated 250,000 juveniles were charged as adults each year in the early 2000s, the number dropped to about 53,000 in 2019, according to the nonprofit National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.

This equates to an overall drop in crime across the country, including a 58% drop in juvenile arrests between 2010 and 2019, according to Justice Department estimates. An estimated 696,620 juveniles were arrested in 2019.

Harrington, who denied the robbery charge, was initially placed in the juvenile ward of an adult prison, the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, under a state law that automatically tries juveniles for certain serious crimes in adult court. He faced five to ten years in prison.


He said he had to constantly watch his back to protect himself from attacks by others 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 growing out. You hardly get showers. You’re only in a bed in the dark. They don’t really hear you out there,” he said.

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons said in a statement that it acknowledged Harrington’s memory, but “there is no documentation” of the experiences he described. The agency said he was being placed in disciplinary segregation — not solitary confinement — because of the fights he was involved in.

The robbery charge will be removed from Harrington’s juvenile record after he files an application, he said.

Harrington works for the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, a Philadelphia group that provides in-prison arts, music and other programs to teens who are charged as adults and opposes prosecuting them in adult courts. He is involved in efforts to repeal the law that automatically sent him to adult prison.


“They would rather be in a youth facility to get the proper care and treatment,” he said. “The youth system … it’s better because you can go home and be with your family.”

However, some officials, including lawmakers and police chiefs, argue that aspects of the reform have gone too far.

In Connecticut, the death of a pedestrian who was hit and killed by a stolen car driven by a teenage repeat offender in New Britain last year sparked calls from police officers and Republican lawmakers to pass tougher juvenile delinquency laws — including more incarceration for repeat offenders.

The 17-year-old driver of the stolen car that killed Henryk Gudelski in New Britain had previously been arrested 13 times for reckless driving and assault.

New Britain Police Commissioner Christopher Chute believes the teenager would have been jailed for those previous crimes in the adult system before Connecticut raised the age of criminal responsibility for adults to 18 a decade ago. He also said state judges have denied many police requests to incarcerate juvenile offenders.


“Talk about a broken juvenile court system,” Chute said. “Most of us in law enforcement refer to this system as arrest, release, retry.”

Giovanni Circo, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, authored a 2019 study that found no link between raising the criminal age for adults to 18 and increases in crime.

“Not disregarding what some of these communities are dealing with, which is really frustrating and dangerous, I’m sure, but when we look at the broader implications of this type of policy, we just don’t find any evidence that it is which gives an impact on the overall crime rate,” he said.

For Harrington jails and prisons are not places for children, period.

“When you’re in prison, no matter how much you stay out of trouble, you’re going to find trouble,” Harrington said. “You have to switch to survival mode from a young age. This is no place… for a child.”

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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/06/in-historic-shift-far-fewer-teens-face-adult-us-courts/ In a historic shift, far fewer teenagers are serving in adult courts in the United States

Sarah Y. Kim

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