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What Does It Mean to be “Tried as an Adult” in the Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System?

This is a common query among media consumers and television viewers who watch reports of serious crimes, such as murder, aggravated assault, or sexual assault committed by minors, and understandably question the implications of such treatment on younger individuals encountering the criminal justice system, often for the first time. Such media coverage evokes fairness notions such as is captured in the old expression: “Old enough to do the crime, old enough to do the time,” especially in more serious and dramatic cases. These questions regarding our criminal justice system touch upon fundamental issues of ethics, morality, and education in our society.

A Brief History of the American Juvenile Justice System

The juvenile criminal justice system in our country was created, in recognition of more subtle biological differences between children and adults, ostensibly with the advent of more advanced scientific research, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With increased understanding, at the societal level, of child cognitive development and the differences in mental maturity, the criminal justice systems in our country began to place greater emphasis on the rehabilitation and education of juveniles, in addressing juvenile offenses, as opposed to punitive or deterrence objectives.

Lawmakers became aware of the inherent problems of imprisoning juvenile offenders with adults, as they were often preyed upon and were learning adult criminal behaviors, becoming “educated in crime.” In response, separate court systems and correctional facilities were created and developed across the country. These institutions adopted a systematic view of parens patriae, which emphasized education and skills-training to equip juvenile offenders for life after prison, in contrast to a more punitive or deterrence-focused philosophy.

Key Differences Between the Juvenile and Adult Criminal Justice Systems

Advantages of Adult Criminal Court

While the juvenile justice system has enormous advantages and protections for the juvenile offender, it should be noted that there are some advantages for having a juvenile tried in adult court. First, adults have the right to a public trial by jury. In juvenile court, cases are heard by a judge in an adjudication hearing, who then rules on whether the juvenile committed a delinquent act.

Another distinct advantage to having a juvenile case tried in adult court, is that in such cases, juries tend to have a more sympathetic disposition towards a minor, especially in view of the potential severity of the punitive consequences and the ostensible lack of maturity and experience of the juvenile offender. Further, juvenile cases tend to proceed through the adult justice system more quickly, than through the juvenile justice system and with lighter sentences, compared to adult offenders.

Advantages of Juvenile Criminal Court

Judges in juvenile court have a wide range of punitive and treatment options that are not available to adult criminal court judges—such as imposing a curfew or ordering counseling instead of jail time. Further, in a juvenile proceeding, there is a lesser degree of social stigmatization, as juveniles are prosecuted for a “delinquent act,” rather than a “crime,” and are ultimately adjudicated as “delinquent,” rather than found “guilty” of a given crime, unless he or she committed a serious offense. Next, the rules of court procedure in a juvenile proceeding tend to be more relaxed and informal than the rules in adult court.

With regard to incarceration, in a juvenile proceeding, the juvenile will serve time in a juvenile detention center rather than in adult jail or prison. Finally, there are significant privacy protections for juveniles. Adult criminal records are open to the public, and all adult court proceedings are open to the public. However, for juvenile offenders, there are limitations placed on public access to juvenile criminal records. This is consistent with the systematic view that juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated, as well as to avoid stigmatization of a young offender. Juvenile court proceedings are often confidential to protect the privacy of the juvenile.

The attorneys at Tanner Law Offices can assist you or your loved ones in defending you in either the adult or juvenile criminal court process. Please contact our office at 717-836-0471 to schedule a consultation to discuss your case.