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Criminal Justice
Kids in Cuffs: Hundreds of youths charged as adults in Pennsylvania every year

On any given day, dozens of children ages 14-17 are housed in adult jails in counties across Pennsylvania while facing charges in adult court.

Most will see their cases dismissed or moved to juvenile proceedings, but not before they spend weeks, months or even years locked up with adults, according to a review of court records conducted by The Sentinel.

In 1995, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed Act 33, which requires people between the ages of 15 and 17 charged with certain felonies — like robbery or aggravated assault — to be charged in adult court if they meet certain requirements, such as the use of a weapon during the alleged crime.

Anyone younger than 15 charged in the same cases will be sent through the juvenile system.

Prior to Act 33, criminal homicide was the only charge ranking above infractions like traffic tickets that automatically pulled people younger than 18 into adult court.

Lauren Fine, co-founder and co-director of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, said the passage of Act 33 in 1995 proved to be pivotal in how juvenile cases are handled.

Fine’s organization provides services to help youths transfer out of the adult system and into the juvenile system.

“None of our work is done without recognition that there is harm caused in every one of these cases ... [but] we’re still talking about children,” Fine said. “We don’t allow children of this same age to vote or even buy cigarettes or make other decisions that have long-lasting effects, and we do that for a reason and that’s because young people are not fully developed, their brains are not fully developed, and we’re holding them accountable for behavior that doesn’t actually reflect where they are in life.”

Violent crimes

Act 33 came at a time when the national conversation about crime in America focused mainly on rising violent crime rates and the myth of the “super predator,” a now-debunked theory that a new generation of young people was somehow more violent or dangerous than prior generations.

“I think that as you look across Pennsylvania, when you look at the statistics on crime ... people are fed up with violent crime, and they are particularly fed up with violent crime that has been committed and continues to be committed in this Commonwealth by juveniles,” Sen. Michael Fisher, who introduced the bill that became Act 33, said on the state Senate floor in 1995. “The young thugs across this Commonwealth who have held people hostage in their homes and in their streets and in their neighborhoods will come to an end. Hopefully, it will be somewhat abated by the passage of this legislation.”

As Fisher stated, the bill was aimed at addressing rising violent crime rates, which rose sharply in the United States beginning in the 1970s through the 1980s, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting System.

The violent crime rate reached its pinnacle in 1991 — four years before the passage of Act 33 — and has fallen precipitously ever since, according to the FBI.

But the law remains in place (with similar versions in other states), and in 2017, it resulted in more than 400 children ages 14 to 17 in Pennsylvania being charged with criminal offenses in adult court, according to an analysis conducted by The Sentinel of more than 240,000 criminal dockets filed in the state.

Joshua Vaughn, The Sentinel 

This chart shows the rate of criminal charges filed against youths in adult court in Pennsylvania in 2017 by county.

Despite accounting for less than 10 percent of the youth population, nearly 70 percent of youths charged in adult court and more than 60 percent of youths convicted in adult court were black teenage boys, according to The Sentinel’s analysis.

Black youths were 10 times more likely to be charged and convicted in adult court than their white counterparts, The Sentinel found.

Roughly two-thirds of all youth cases were ultimately dropped or sent to juvenile court after being charged in adult court, according to court records.

Joshua Vaughn, The Sentinel 

This chart shows the rate of criminal convictions or active prosecutions of youths in adult court in Pennsylvania in 2017 by county.

However, most of the juveniles charged in adult court spent time in adult jails.

Fine said youths in Philadelphia on average spend several months in jail before being moved to juvenile proceedings ... some spent years in jail.

In 1995, Fisher argued that trying and sentencing children who committed “adult crimes” in adult court would be “rehabilitative” and help deter other youths from offending.

Research on the direct file laws that arose from the 1980s and 1990s found neither of those assertions to be true.

According to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, these laws have little to no deterrent effect on children as a group and can actually increase criminal involvement for youths sent through the adult system.

Multiple studies found young people who were tried in adult courts are more likely to be arrested and be arrested more quickly and frequently than similar young people sent through the juvenile system, according to the OJJDP.

A 2003 study found youths charged as adults in Pennsylvania were twice as likely than similar youths sent through the juvenile system to be rearrested within 18 months.

Several factors play into these outcomes including the long-lasting negative effects of a criminal conviction, a sense of resentment and injustice felt by the youths tried and punished as adults, learned criminal behavior from being incarcerated with adult offenders and the decreased focus on rehabilitation in the adult criminal justice system, according to the OJJDP.

Fine said a core tenant of the juvenile system is the rehabilitation of the child whereas the adult system focuses much more heavily on punishment.

Even just holding young people in adult jails can have serious negative consequences.

Youths held in adult jails and prisons are more likely to die by suicide than their adult counterparts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. They are also roughly 36 times more likely to die by suicide than those held in juvenile facilities, according to a 2007 study conducted by the Campaign for Youth.

“These kids are ending up in juvenile court anyway,” Fine said. “Why are we exposing them, traumatizing them and holding back their education [by holding them in adult jails]?”

Poorly equipped

Fine said adult jails are not designed to handle the needs of young people or properly equipped with tools to discipline them.

What may be an effective means of discipline for an adult, like segregation, can be damaging to a child, she said.

“Even the most well-meaning and well-equipped staff are functioning in a system that is ill-equipped for the young people who are being treated in it,” Fine said.

Along with requiring certain cases to be charged in adult court, Act 33 of 1995 makes the assumption that these young people should be in adult court and places the burden on them to prove why they should be moved to juvenile court.

This fundamentally changes the way the system operates, Fine said.

Traditionally, prosecutors have the option to request a youth be brought into adult court. In Pennsylvania, district attorneys can file a discretionary waiver for any youth aged 14 or older who is charged with a felony.

The burden, however, is placed on the prosecution to prove that the child cannot benefit from treatment or supervision and is not able to be rehabilitated.

Act 33 flips that burden for some youths and requires that they provide evidence that it would be in the public interest to transfer their case to juvenile proceedings. This can be costly, and the pressure imposed by the adult system can push youths to plead guilty and carry an adult conviction for life or offer to plead guilty in exchange for the transfer to juvenile court, Fine said.

“That just changes every aspect of a how a case is handled,” Fine said of Act 33. “Kids are being held in adult jails and that impacts every aspect of their case and decision making.”

“We don’t allow children of this same age to vote or even buy cigarettes or make other decisions that have long-last effects, and we do that for a reason and that’s because young people are not fully developed.” Lauren Fine, co-founder and co-director of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project

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Where it Stands
Where It Stands: Carlisle American Legion murder trial starts Monday

One June 11, 2016, someone shot and killed 30-year-old Daniel Harris while he sat inside the Haynes Stackfield American Legion in Carlisle.

Police later arrested Robert Anderson, 41, of Carlisle, on Oct. 20, 2016, and charged him in the slaying. Anderson is being held without bail in Dauphin County Prison awaiting trial.

Carlisle man charged in Stackfield American Legion shooting case

Despite issues with cooperation from witnesses and victims throughout the investigation, Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said authorities never backed off in their pursuit of a man who walked into a Carlisle club and fatally shot Daniel Harris on June 11.

Then Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed said Anderson was indicted through a grand jury, which was used because of potential threats to witnesses in the case. Freed mentioned issues with cooperation from witnesses and victims throughout the investigation.

That trial is slated to begin Monday. Anderson is charged with first- and third-degree murder, felony possession of a firearm by a prohibited person and misdemeanor reckless endangerment.

Prosecutors have also filed what is known as a notice of aggravating circumstances. That combined with the first-degree murder charge means Anderson could face the death penalty.

Where it stands

Jury selection is set to begin in Anderson’s trial at 1 p.m. Monday, according to court records.

In most other criminal trials the jury determines only whether the defendant is guilty of the crimes they are accused of. Death penalty cases are different. The same jury that determines guilt decides whether or not to impose the death penalty.

This means beyond the typical questions used to decide a jury, potential jurors must not have moral, religious or conscientious objection to the death penalty.

Following jury selection, the trial will move into opening statements. Then the prosecution will present its case against Anderson and then the defense before the case is handed over to the jury to deliberate.

According to court records, the trial is scheduled to run for roughly two weeks, but that time frame is not exact. It could change depending on how long it takes to present evidence and for the jury to reach a verdict.

If Anderson is convicted of first-degree murder, the case moves directly into the penalty phase.

A separate hearing where aggravating circumstance — like a significant criminal history or placing others at risk of death during the crime — and mitigating circumstances — like mental or emotional disturbance or acting under duress — are presented, and the jury must weigh if the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating.

The jury’s verdict must be unanimous. If the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances, the sentence is death. Otherwise, the sentence would be life without parole.

If Anderson is convicted, but not of first-degree murder, the case moves into a more traditional penalty phase with a judge imposing the penalty based on the crime of which he was convicted.

Where It Stands is a weekly feature that takes a look at what has happened with a news story since it was last reported on by The Sentinel. Have a story you want followed up on? Email The Sentinel at


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Report takes aim at pedestrian safety after spike in fatalities

The authors of a new report are calling on federal, state and local governments to do more to address a staggering spike in pedestrian fatalities.

The report, “Dangerous By Design 2019,” urges swift action to curb the death toll, approximately 49,340 people in the 10-year period ending in 2017 in the United States.

“We are killing an airliner’s worth of people walking each and every month — and these numbers are only increasing. This is a wake-up call for all of us. No one should have to risk their life just to cross the street, yet that’s exactly what thousands of people have to do just to get around each day,” said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, which produced the report along with the advocacy group Smart Growth America.

Cumberland and Perry counties saw a spat of fatal pedestrian crashes in December and January, including two separate incidents on Dec. 23. On that day, a man was struck and killed while walking on Interstate 81 in Silver Spring Township, and another man was killed in a hit-and-run in New Bloomfield. Both were in the early morning, and police have not reported finding the driver in either case.

In January, a Carlisle man was killed while walking on the Holly Pike in South Middleton Township. Police said the driver is cooperating in that case.

Last month, Brandon Baker, 25, of Etters, pleaded guilty to the 2016 fatal pedestrian crash on the Camp Hill Bypass that claimed the life of a woman. In that incident, Baker was DUI at the time of the crash.

Health crisis

The ongoing public health crisis of pedestrian deaths was the focus of last year’s Detroit Free Press/USA Today Network investigation, “Death on Foot.” The investigation highlighted the role of SUVs, which have gained in popularity over passenger cars and are more likely to kill pedestrians in a crash. It also noted that roadway design, vehicle speed and distraction are factors.

In just two years — 2016 and 2017, the most recent years for which data is available — approximately 12,000 pedestrians have been killed in the United States.

“Many places still lack the most basic safe infrastructure for walking. For example, crosswalks, if they do exist at all, are often spaced so far apart as to be impractical, or don’t provide enough time for older adults to safely cross. Unnecessarily wide lanes encourage high speeds — a major factor in the likelihood of surviving a collision — and many streets are designed with wide turning lanes that allow cars to make right turns through crosswalks at high speeds,” according to a news release.

Atherton also blasted the expectations set by 18 states, including Michigan, for an increasing number of people likely to be killed or seriously injured in 2018 versus 2017 for non-motorized crashes, including pedestrians.

“This is really unacceptable,” Atherton said. “States need to be setting targets that actually improve safety.”

The federal government, Atherton suggested, could send a message to the states by withholding some of the approximately $30 billion in federal highway money for those that do not show safety improvements.

Focus on safety

Boosting safety for those walking is crucial, the report says, because 16 percent of those killed on roadways are now pedestrians.

The report seeks a “strong national Complete Streets policy” as a first step to addressing the problem of motor vehicle-related fatalities. Complete Streets policies typically direct transportation planners to consider all road users, not just those driving cars, trucks and SUVs, when designing roads. Michigan does, however, have a Complete Streets law.

The focus of transportation planning should be safety, not speed, according to the report.

Is the United States going to be a country that supports mobility and equity in the movement of people and goods or will it be a country that prioritizes high-speed motor vehicle travel, Atherton asked.

The report also calculated how dangerous walking can be in different areas of the country from 2008 to 2017. Florida was the most dangerous state during that time, with states in the Sun Belt occupying all but one of the top 10 spots. Michigan was ranked 19th.

Among metropolitan areas, eight of the top 10 most dangerous places to walk, based on the report, were located in Florida. The combined Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area came in at No. 18 during that time. The Free Press/USA Today Network investigation, which also analyzed federal data, noted that Detroit had the highest pedestrian death rate among U.S. cities of more than 200,000 from 2010 to 2016.

The report also noted that people of color, older residents and those walking in low-income communities are disproportionately affected by fatal pedestrian crashes.