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Punishments for Juvenile Crimes in Pennsylvania

In the legal arena, juvenile criminals and their punishment have always been a hot topic. Every so often, a particularly brutal case shocks the world — cases like Jon Venables, or Mary Bell — and leaves us all pondering the question of how young people ought to be handled when they commit crimes. While Venables and Bell are extreme outliers, juveniles do commit crimes, just as adults commit crimes. But where is the line between child and criminal? What happens to juveniles who break the law?

Protection for Juveniles

In 2009 in the state of Pennsylvania, per 100,000 population, over 17,000 arrests of juveniles were made — almost one in five. Juveniles are defined as youth between the ages of 10 and 17, and their cases must be heard in juvenile court as opposed to “regular” adult court. Under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system, they are not allowed to be held in adult prisons while awaiting their court hearings. Adults, conversely, may be held in jail prior to a hearing for up to 90 days.

It should be noted, however, that juveniles are not completely armored. Juveniles charged as adults can, like adults, be held in adult jails prior to their hearings. They can also be jailed if they fail to attend their own hearings. Furthermore, juvenile judges can refer a case to a regular court.

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Types of Juvenile Offenses in Pennsylvania

The first and most minor type of juvenile offenses is a delinquent act. In a delinquent act, the act committed would be considered a crime if it had been committed by an adult. If the child is found guilty of committing a delinquent act, they are judged in juvenile, not adult, court.

A summary offense is not considered to be an act of delinquency, but a full-blown crime, and will be tried with the adult criminal code. In summary offenses, juveniles are treated essentially like adults; though unlike adults, they cannot legally be held in an adult prison while awaiting their hearing. Summary offenses are considered less serious than misdemeanors or felonies, and describe relatively minor crimes, such as underage drinking or disorderly conduct.

When Are Juveniles Charged as Adults?

In Pennsylvania, juveniles will be tried in adult courts in two scenarios:

  1. They were 15 years of age or older at the time of the offense, and they either used a deadly weapon or had been previously charged with a serious crime such as rape, robbery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, or manslaughter.
  2. They were charged with murder.

It’s unpleasant to think of a teenager committing an act of murder — but it happens. And when it does, things get complicated. Pennsylvania law decrees that murder in the first or second degree must be punished with a life sentence. However, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that life imprisonment for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of constitutional rights. This has offered a glimmer of hope for some 400 juveniles jailed for life throughout Pennsylvania, who may now become eligible for parole.

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