David Harrington spent a tense eight months in a Philadelphia jail when he was a teenager – the result of a robbery charge in 2014 that automatically sent his case to the adult court system under state law.
Only 16 at the time, he said he got into fights and spent time in isolation. He missed his sophomore year in high school and the birth of his child. He was facing five to 10 years in prison. He was on a path, he said, toward more trouble with the law.
“I think if I would have stayed in the adult system, I would have came home probably a little worse,” said Mr. Harrington, now 24, who works as an advocate for young offenders. “I would have came home [after] listening to the ways on how to get better at ... certain illegal things, and I would have came home and been doing nonsense.”
Instead, he was able to convince a judge to send his case down to juvenile court. He spent a month in a juvenile detention center before a judge found he did take part in the robbery and sent him home under house arrest, probation, and a $3,000 restitution order. He was allowed to see his family and friends, and finish high school.
Mr. Harrington’s case from 2015 is indicative of a significant shift away from the “get tough” philosophy of the 1980s and ’90s for youth offenders, which has resulted in far fewer children being prosecuted in U.S. adult courts. That has meant second chances for untold thousands of youths.
Data reported to the FBI each year by thousands of police departments across the country shows the percentage of youths taken into custody who were referred to adult courts dropped from 8% in 2010 to 2% in 2019. The percentage dropped to 1% in 2020, although that year’s data is considered unusual because of the coronavirus pandemic, which closed many courts.
Instead, more teenagers are being sent to juvenile courts or community programs that steer them to counseling, peer mediation, and other services aimed at keeping them out of trouble.
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