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In some states, juveniles are automatically charged in adult court for certain serious crimes. It's a practice known as direct file. In Pennsylvania, there is a push to change that rule to prevent children from ending up with adult records. William Brangham reports for our series, Searching for Justice. A warning: this report contains descriptions of self-harm.
We return now to our ongoing coverage of America's criminal justice system, Searching For Justice, and the lingering consequences of being incarcerated.
In some states, juveniles are automatically charged in adult court for certain serious crimes, a practice known as direct file.
William Brangham reports from Pennsylvania, where there is a push to change that practice and to try to prevent children from ending up with adult records.
Andre Simms performs under the name DayOneNotDayTwo.
Andre Simms, Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project: Think about your first day of school or your first day of work, your first day on the job. You're trying to prove yourself. You're trying to show up in your — in the best way possible.
And so what if we could preserve that day one energy?
It's a positive message from a 26-year-old who is just now starting his life over on the outside.
At 17, I was charged with attempted murder, and I ended up I spent eight years in an adult facility, in an adult prison. I was directly filed in adult court, as opposed to going through family court or going through the juvenile process.
Meaning the system says, this is a serious enough crime that we're going to put a young offender in with adults?
As a minor, Simms was separated from adult inmates, but that meant being held in solitary confinement.
Imagine being locked in your bathroom, no phone, no TV, nobody to talk to. That is your existence.
You try to keep yourself busy. You try to work out, or read, do something. But, a lot of the times, you are in your own thoughts. You're in your head. And I experienced, like, intense, very intense depression, very intense anxiety. It got to the point where I wanted to harm myself.
When youths are charged as adults and held in adult facilities, research shows they are far more likely to die from suicide, and at the highest risk of being sexually abused.
And when they eventually do get out, they're left with an adult record and all of the consequences that come with that.
Because you have this felony on your record, you can't go back to certain schools. You can't go get the education to better yourself to get the job that's going to get you the property. And so that creates this cycle, these barriers at every step.
And it's not surprising that the majority of people who go to these prisons go back to crime, go back to causing harm.
The juvenile justice system was created in the early 20th century on the understanding that kids are different than adults and they should be treated differently and on the belief that a mistake made when you're young should not dictate the rest of your life.
But in the 1980s and '90s, a spike in violent crime challenged that idea, and talk turned away from rehabilitating young people to punishing them harshly, a point infamously made by then first lady Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former U.S. Secretary of State: They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super predators, no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about how they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.
Malik Pickett, Juvenile Law Center:
There was a racist undertone for that sensationalized narrative about the super predator.
Malik Pickett is a staff attorney with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit law firm focused on the juvenile justice system.
The super predator myth posited that there was a wave of really dangerous youth that were committing really serious offenses who needed to do time for the crimes that they were committing.
In 1995, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law that directed prosecutors to directly file charges against young people 15 and over in adult court if they committed particular violent felonies, especially if they're repeat offenders or used a deadly weapon.
Pennsylvania was not unique in this matter. There were a litany of states that were kind of enacting a lot of similar policies. But there has recently been a movement to kind of draw back some of those policies and to recognize that youth are developmentally distinct from adults.
STATE SEN. Camera Bartolotta (R-PA):
You're not allowed to vote until you're 18. You can't drink until you're 21, but a young person who commits crimes, they should have known better, and we're going to throw them into adult prison.
Republican State Senator Camera Bartolotta co-chairs the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus in the Pennsylvania legislature. In may, she introduced a bill that would end direct file in the state.
State Sen. Camera Bartolotta:
One of the worst things that happens when anyone has been incarcerated, especially a young person, they will face an uphill battle for years and years to come.
Ending direct file was one of more than recommendations made by a bipartisan Juvenile Justice Task Force last year. One of its key findings was the large racial disparities in which youth are charged as adults.
Black male youths make up 7 percent of the state's youth population, but account for 56 percent of minors convicted as adults. The task force also detailed how kids who are charged as adults are more likely to reoffend, compared to those kept within the juvenile system.
We're doing the opposite of what we need to do if we want to curtail crime and address the issues of our youth. We're saying, these are children. Let minors be treated by juvenile court first. And if that justice feels the need to move it up to adult court, that is their prerogative.
Despite bipartisan support, Bartolotta's bill to end direct file has not passed this legislative session.
One key reason is the opposition of district attorneys like Jack Stollsteimer a Democrat in Delaware County, which is just outside Philadelphia.
Jack Stollsteimer, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney:
I think this is the wrong time for this question to even be on the table, which is why you don't see the legislature moving.
Philadelphia in particular has seen shootings increase by nearly 80 percent since 2019, including several high-profile ones involving teenagers, like the shooting in September after a high school football scrimmage that left a 14-year-old dead and four other teenagers wounded.
I think that there are people over the age of 15, when they're committing rape, when they're committing murder, when they're committing aggravated assault, and they're doing it with a deadly weapon, I think we have to start by saying you have now lost, you have jettisoned your ability to start in the juvenile system, because what we're all trying to do, whether in the adult system or in the juvenile system, is figure out, what's best for that child, balanced by what's best for public safety.
The community has a right to be safe from that child as well.
But for youth in Pennsylvania, adult court is not just for those who have committed serious crimes. Direct file means youths are placed in the adult court system at the time of charging when they have simply been accused of a serious crime.
That is what happened to then-16-year old David Harrington in 2014.
David Harrington, Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project: A robbery had occurred in the area, and me and my friend Kit (ph) was walking, came up 10 minutes after the robbery. Detectives, they just were stopping anyone. My friend had a firearm on him at that time.
So, 16-year-old you gets arrested for a crime that you say you didn't have anything to do with.
I had no parts in it.
And how long were you locked up?
I was out of eight months on State Road.
Harrington couldn't afford a bond for his quarter-million dollar bail, so before he was even tried, he spent most of what would have been his sophomore year of high school in an adult jail. It took a judge just minutes to decertify, or send his case back to the juvenile system.
The judge, he said, why is this case in my courtroom? He said, why is this boy here? Send him to the juvenile. Have them deal with it.
Which is what you argue should have happened all along.
That should have happened the first time. I should have been able to be in a juvenile system first fighting my case.
In fact, nearly 60 percent of cases in Pennsylvania where youths are charged as adults, are dismissed, withdrawn, or end up in juvenile court. That's according to the state's Juvenile Justice Task Force.
David Harrington was found to be delinquent, or responsible, in the robbery by a juvenile judge, placed on house arrest, and required to pay restitution. It took years to expunge his adult criminal arrest.
How you feel about today's session?
Today, Harrington is an organizer with the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project, or YASP, in Philadelphia. It runs art and poetry workshops for young people who are incarcerated, and helps provide support for their families.
Prepare, like, what you would like say or how you're going to address the court.
Andre Simms is also an organizer at YASP, which is also one of several groups around the state pushing to end direct file.
There are so many barriers when you're returning from being incarcerated. I am the exception.
The majority of young Black men who've been through the system are still in this system. It's a revolving door.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Philadelphia.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
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