Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Cautionary Instruction: Compassion and juvenile justice in Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
May 6, 2011

Compassion is not what comes to mind when talking about juvenile criminal justice in Pennsylvania. Luzerne County judges are facing prison as a result of a “kids-for-cash” scheme. Hundreds of children were sent to out-of-home placements for minor offenses, often without legal representation.

Pennsylvania has the disturbing distinction of leading the nation in juveniles serving life without the possibility of parole. Any juvenile accused of murder in Pennsylvania must be charged as an adult. If convicted of first degree murder, the juvenile must be sentenced to life in prison. There are 444 offenders serving life without parole in Pennsylvania for murders committed as juveniles.

In 2009, an 11-year-old Lawrence County boy, Jordan Brown, was charged as an adult with homicide for allegedly shooting his father’s pregnant girlfriend in the head with a shotgun while she slept. He then rode the bus to school.

Brown faces life in prison. If he receives a life sentence he would be the youngest person in the U.S. sent to prison for life. He remains in a juvenile detention center after the Superior Court instructed the trial court to re-examine his request to be transferred to juvenile court.

These matters have focused international attention on Pennsylvania’s criminal and juvenile justice system. At times the mechanical nature of Pennsylvania’s criminal statutes, combined with the absence of discretion, have produced untenable results.

However, two recent cases in Pennsylvania illustrate that judges and prosecutors can work within the law to pursue just and reasonable resolutions to difficult cases.

Last month, a Franklin County fifth grader was charged as an adult with homicide. The girl allegedly caused the death of an 11-month-old boy by violently shaking him and throwing him into a crib. After the charges were filed, with the support of the D.A., the case was immediately transferred to juvenile court. The child was released to her parents.

This week a 17-year-old Allegheny County juvenile was arrested after he allegedly accosted, robbed and stole the vehicle of Michael Schacht, a PNC usher, who was suffering a heart attack. Schacht died as he lay bleeding along the road. The teen was not charged with homicide. The D.A. could not prove corpus delicti — that the unlawful act caused the victim’s death. The law did not support charging the juvenile as an adult. He faces a juvenile charge of robbery and remains in the Shuman Center.

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