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Number Of Young People Charged In Philadelphia’s Adult Court Drops Sharply

The decline under DA Larry Krasner, who took office in 2018, marks a significant change in juvenile justice in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks to a reporter at an event for public defender and onetime Queens DA candidate Tiffany Cabán on June 25, 2019.Scott Heins/Getty

The number of children charged as adults in Philadelphia has been cut in half under District Attorney Larry Krasner, according to a review of court records by The Appeal.

In the two years before Krasner took office, an average of 127 children were charged as adults. In 2018, Krasner’s first year in office, that number fell to less than 50, The Appeal found.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that children have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility that can lead to recklessness and risk-taking, and that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change. Research has also found that young people who are charged in adult court are more likely to be rearrested than those who went through a juvenile system. This includes research from Pennsylvania that found that youth being charged in adult court doubled the odds they would be rearrested compared to those charged in juvenile court. 

The Appeal reviewed more than 90,000 adult criminal dockets filed in the Philadelphia Municipal Court between Jan. 1, 2016 and Dec. 31, 2018. This includes all cases entered into the system and not expunged or sealed by the time The Appeal collected the records.

“[This] is probably one of many reflections that this administration believes that juveniles, with fairly few exceptions, belong in the juvenile court system,” Krasner said.

The decline in children charged in adult court under Krasner marks a significant change for juvenile justice in Pennsylvania. In 1995, state lawmakers enacted an automatic “direct file” law that required all children age 15 and older who are charged with specific felony offenses like aggravated assault or robbery—and meet certain criteria like use of a weapon—to be charged as adults. These cases can be moved back to juvenile court but requires children to petition the court and places the burden on them to prove that they should be taken out of adult proceedings.

Paul Goldman, supervisor of the juvenile unit for the Philadelphia DA’s office, said Krasner has made several changes to reduce the number of young people charged in adult court.

Cases are more thoroughly screened earlier in the process to decide what charges best fit the alleged crime rather than charging the maximum possible crime and reducing the charge later, Goldman said. For instance, cases where a child would have been initially charged with a first-degree felony aggravated assault but the charge was reduced after an extensive review are being screened at the beginning of the process and charged with a lesser offense. And if a child is not charged with one of the specific felony offenses, then the DA’s office transfers the case to juvenile court.

In 2018, the most significant reduction in children charged in adult court came in cases involving 15-year-olds, which fell by nearly 80 percent compared with the two prior years. That same year, the number of 17-year-olds charged in adult court was halved, while the number of 16-year-olds charged in adult court declined by more than 65 percent, The Appeal found.

In Pennsylvania, most cases involving children charged as adults are eventually moved out of adult court, but any child who cannot make bail while awaiting a transfer is held in an adult jail. Goldman said that beyond reducing the number of children charged as adults, the DA’s office has expedited the transfer of these cases from adult court to juvenile court. In 2017, on average children waited more than 130 days to be transferred to juvenile court, he said. In 2018 and 2019, the wait was reduced to less than 45 days.

As of Aug. 29, there were 14 children held in Philadelphia’s adult jail, according to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. Goldman said that prior to 2018, it was common for there to be about 40 children in the adult jail.

Krasner told The Appeal that he supports a repeal of Pennsylvania’s automatic direct file law because it has harmed the children sent through the adult system and has been detrimental to public safety. “We are believers in individual justice,” Krasner said. “What we see with these shortcuts that take discretion away from judges and take discretion away from lawyers who are experienced in the system is that they are good politics, but they are bad policy.”