By Dan McCormick
For the Legal
As the U.S. Supreme Court debates whether juveniles should be sentenced to life without parole, at the University of Pennsylvania Law School there was a similar conversation: should juveniles even be tried as adults?
On March 16 at the Penn Law Edward V. Spaer Symposium, a panel that included lawyers, a psychologist and a Philadelphia judge discussed the role of age in the criminal justice system. The conversation focused mostly on how to treat serious offenders who are juveniles.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner, who has been the city’s decertification judge for the past few years, said that since the Direct File Act was passed, the system of certifying juveniles has been “stood on its head.” Psychological reports, which used to be the standard method of determining if a serious offender should be tried as an adult, are now only one issue that the defense must deal with, because now they have the burden of proving that it’s in the “public interest” for the offender to be tried as a juvenile, he said.
Marsha Levick from the Juvenile Law Center pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court is actually moving toward a more scientific approach for juvenile offenders. In recent years, the court has relied on scientific evidence of juveniles’ inability to make proper judgments in its decisions regarding treatment of juvenile offenders, she said.
Dr. Steven Berkowitz spoke further on issues of brain development, arguing that social and family circumstances also need to be considered in the treatment of juvenile offenders because of psychological trauma’s adverse effect on a child’s ability to make judgments.
Yumari Martinez, a lawyer from the Vera Institute Center on Youth Justice, argued that the criminal court system should be the last resort for juvenile offenders. He also said lawyers need to be aware of the disproportionate minority representation of the juvenile justice system.
Finally, R. Daniel Okonkwo of DC Lawyers for Youth, said the juvenile penal system should be treatment-based rather than punitive, because a system based on punishment does not produce juveniles who are prepared to be members of a healthy community. For all the talk of consequences that is raised in the discussion of juvenile offenders, adults need to be conscious of the consequences that their own justice system has on communities, he said.
The panel members agreed that the justice system needs to recognize that juveniles are inherently less capable of making proper judgments and that juveniles subject to traumatic circumstances are even less capable. Together, they advised the auditorium full of law students to remember that their future profession plays an important role in the treatment of young people who have committed crimes. Listen to their stories, the panel said, and keep their best interests in mind.