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In a Pennsylvania County, Black Children Are Disproportionately Charged in Adult Court

In 2016 and 2017, more than 80 percent of children charged as adults by the Allegheny County district attorney were Black.

Photo illustration by Anagraph/Photo by luoman/Getty Images

Denzel Glover was 16 when he was arrested and taken to the Allegheny County Jail for shooting another teen in September 2016. Kiyon Swindle was 17 when he was arrested in March 2017 for leading Allegheny County police on a high-speed chase that ended with Swindle crashing a stolen vehicle into another vehicle, injuring several people. Tomichael Sherrell was just 15 when he was arrested and charged with robbery, and 16 when he was sentenced to five years of probation after pleading guilty to felony robbery. He spent nearly a year in county jail because he could not pay cash bail.

From the moment Sherrell, Swindle, and Glover were charged, they were treated as adults, held in adult jail, and then prosecuted by the Allegheny district attorney’s office and convicted as adults. Pennsylvania law requires that people who are accused of serious felony offenses like murder, robbery, and aggravated assault, and are at least 15 years old, be charged as adults if the case involves the use of a weapon during the crime or if the person has a history of using a weapon.

But these cases can be diverted to the juvenile system by prosecutors after defendants are charged. Despite numerous opportunities, the district attorney’s office never moved Sherrell, Swindle or Glover from adult court to the juvenile system.

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, told The Appeal that “nothing good” comes from incarcerating and prosecuting children as adults. “You’re removing kids from their communities,” she said. “That’s strike one.”

Swindle, Glover, and Sherrell have something in common with majority of children charged and tried as adults in Allegheny, a populous Pennsylvania county with Pittsburgh as its county seat:  They are Black.

The Appeal reviewed all charging dockets filed in magisterial district judge offices in Allegheny County in 2016 and 2017 and found nearly 200 cases where teens were charged as adults by the district attorney’s office. In more than 80 percent of those cases, the defendant was Black. The review only tracked cases where the defendant was under the age of 18, both when the offense occurred and at the time charges were filed.

Black youth only account for about 20 percent of the total youth population age 14 to 17 in Allegheny County, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. But Black teens in the county were 20 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested and charged as adults in 2016 and 2017, The Appeal found.

The Appeal made multiple attempts to reach Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office for comment but received no response.

“There’s all of this implicit, and sometimes explicit, bias that drives law enforcement into [minority] communities and that drives these kids into our justice system,” Levick said. And that racial disparity only grew as cases moved through Allegheny County’s system.

In 2016 and 2017, Black teens in the county accounted for about 85 percent of children charged in adult court, 91 percent of those referred for prosecution, nearly 97 percent of those who received an adjudication, and 100 percent of all children sentenced to either jail or prison, according to The Appeal’s review of court records. Black teens were also 85 times more likely to be prosecuted in adult court than their white peers.

The Appeal also found that prosecutors were less likely to withdraw cases against Black teens early in the proceedings, before those cases reached the trial court. And in Pennsylvania, withdrawing can often indicate that a case might move from adult to juvenile court.

Of the six cases involving a white teen sent to Zappala’s office, The Appeal found only two criminal dockets in the higher court. In one case, the defendant died before trial; the other was still active at the time of The Appeal‘s review.

Conversely, about 70 cases involving Black teens were sent to Zappala for prosecution. From those cases, The Appeal found that Zappala’s office created 46 adult criminal dockets—28 of those cases have ended in a prison, jail or probation sentence; in three, Zappala’s office dropped all charges; and 15 are still awaiting adjudication.

Recent research suggests that sending teens through the adult justice system and incarcerating youth with adults can have grave consequences. Youth held in adult prisons and jails are twice as likely to die by suicide than their adult counterparts and roughly 36 times more likely to die by suicide than their peers held in juvenile facilities.

Research has also found that young people sent through the adult justice system are more likely to commit new offenses, and commit them more quickly than similarly charged youth who went through the juvenile system.

As such statistics have come to light, courts and states have begun rethinking how they punish children.  Four U.S. Supreme Court decisions have held that the death penalty and mandatory life without parole sentences for children are unconstitutional. In one such ruling, the high court noted that “adolescent brain anatomy can cause transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.”

States have also moved away from the “adult time for adult crime” and “superpredator” narratives of the 1980s and 1990s. In 2016, the Vermont legislature passed a law allowing people 21 and younger, and charged with certain nonviolent offenses, youthful offender status and adjudication through the juvenile system. Last year, New York raised its age of adult criminal liability from 16 to 18; in October, Washington State’s Supreme Court held that life without parole sentences were unconstitutional for individuals convicted of offenses they committed as children. The American Bar Association now recommends that children “be treated as juveniles in the court justice system, with a focus on rehabilitating rather than simply punishing.”

But there’s movement in Pennsylvania, too. In 2014, the state Supreme Court determined that lifetime sexual offender registration for individuals who committed offenses when they were children was unconstitutional and a violation of state law. The lower court cited a growing body of research regarding youth brain development and delinquent behavior, noting that “lifetime registration is also contrary to the rehabilitative goals of our juvenile justice system, as a court of second chances.”

And the conservative columnist George F. Will recently urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take a juvenile life without parole case out of Mississippi to force the state to take seriously its rulings granting parole eligibility to youth who are not “permanently incorrigible.” The attorney for Joey Chandler, the lifer in the case, argued that he has been incarcerated “virtually without disciplinary blemish and that he excelled in job training programs offered at the prison.”

“Accountability matters,” Levick of the Juvenile Law Center said. “But accountability in developmentally appropriate ways is what we should be focused on.”