Teenagers Charged as Adults – the State and the Crime May be More Important than the Age of the Accused

By: Gerri L. Elder

A criminal case that is pending in Erie, Pa., has raised questions about whether or not juveniles should stand trial as adults, as a Pennsylvania law dictates.

Pennsylvania adopted the Fisher Bill in 1996, which allows prosecutors to charge juvenile offenders as adults for some non-violent crimes if they were committed with a deadly weapon.

Kelsie L. Noce is a 17-year-old high school student who may have to stand trial as an adult, with a public trial and criminal record, unless the criminal defense attorneys representing her and the other four students involved in an armed robbery win the right to be tried as juvenile defendants.

Noce and the other students, all underage, were charged with armed robbery after they allegedly planned a robbery of a local grocery store, carried out the armed robbery with a stolen Airsoft BB gun and got away with $278.

Prosecutors decided that rather than utilize the juvenile court system that was created for underage offenders, that they would instead dust off the Fisher Bill and try all of the students in adult court.

Noce and her co-defendants aren’t the only teens who will be denied the anonymity and rehabilitation of juvenile court. There seems to be a disturbing nationwide trend of prosecutors ignoring juvenile court and trying teens, who lack the same reasoning capacity as adults, in adult court where they will be subjected to harsher penalties and public criminal records.

Old laws required that a juvenile be charged with homicide to “qualify” to be tried as an adult, but during the 1990′s new laws emerged nationwide that would allow other crimes committed by juveniles to be tried in adult courts.

Lawmakers may have missed the point of exactly why there is a juvenile court system. Originally, the age of the defendant dictated whether or not the case would be tried in juvenile court, however, under new laws the crime itself determines which court will be used. So why is there a juvenile court system if prosecutors can simply opt not to use it?

It can be argued that the rate of crimes committed by youthful offenders increased, and therefore lawmakers and prosecutors felt the need to crack down on them. However, a teen is still a teen, and still without the same reasoning skills as adults and capacity to fully comprehend the impact of their actions. To deny these teen offenders the right to be tried as what they are – juveniles – just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Under the Fisher Bill in Pennsylvania, children as young as 15 can be charged as adults if they are accused of crimes such as robbery, rape, kidnapping and aggravated assault and a deadly weapon is involved.

In the case of Noce and her co-defendants, a BB gun is being considered a deadly weapon and is the reason the teens are charged as adults in the robbery. Outside of the juvenile court system, if they are convicted they will be punished as adults, without regard for their ages. At 17 they will have the robbery as part of their permanent criminal histories which could prevent them from jobs or education opportunities in the future. They also will be subjected to a public trial, and not have their identities protected as they would in juvenile court.