Iannelli: Children at home, adults in court

jerry iannelli

jerry iannelliOn March 21, a female Temple student was hit in the face with a brick. She could have easily been killed. Her jaw was in bad enough shape that surgeons needed to mold it back together.

The group that attacked her – allegedly a team of five underage girls hailing from West and Northwest Philadelphia – are reported to have attacked three other students walking within five blocks of one another that evening.

The clamor from students and members of the media following the attacks has been fervent and steady. The university did not send out a TUAlert warning students of any impending danger, though this can be potentially tied to the fact that Philadelphia Police waited hours to alert Campus Safety that a student had been attacked. Television news crews were stationed on Main Campus for multiple nights. There is a petition to expand Temple Police’s patrol zone, in an effort to prevent attacks of this nature from happening again.

It would be quite valiant of most Temple students to fight for greater transparency in their police department, but this does not actually seem likely.

Rather, there is a constant, gnawing fear that comes with walking this campus in the dark hours: That you are perpetually the target of a masked man wielding a knife, and must walk home stiff-spined and fist-clenched each night to remain safe and alive. There is a sizeable amount of underclassmen that are content with chalking this up to “black crime” and carrying on each week, batting no eyelash when three juveniles are apprehended by Philadelphia Police and tried as adults for crimes that seem remarkably immature in their execution.

In Pennsylvania, a juvenile aged 15 or older may be tried as an adult if he or she used a deadly weapon or has previously been adjudicated for one of nine crimes, including rape and kidnapping, according to the Juvenile Law Center. A Philadelphia Police blog post from March 26 stated that five girls turned themselves in to police following the attacks.

Three of the five have been charged as “Direct File Juveniles” – i.e. charged as adults – in relation to the assaults. The teens, Najee Bilaal, 16, Zaria Estes, 15, and Kanesha Gainey, 15, are charged with aggravated assault, conspiracy, possession of an instrument of crime, terroristic threats, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person. The Pennsylvania court system considers these adolescents fully mature human beings, and this should make students feel neither safer nor satisfied.

Something to note: According to state court records, Bilaal has been arrested six times since Dec. 2011. If there is a teen in this situation that “should have known better” at this point in the game, it’s Bilaal.

Even with Bilaal’s history taken into account, there’s a wealth of evidence that – logically – suggests juveniles transferred into adult court face tougher challenges both during trial and after adjudication. According to a study published in the “Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology” in 2006, juveniles are awarded longer prison sentences for violent offenses, and are more likely to become repeat offenders upon their release from adult prison as opposed to a juvenile detention center.

These are 15- and 16-year-old teens, and if convicted, they will most likely not be rehabilitated by the American justice system. According to the aforementioned study, juveniles tried in adult court are more likely to receive probation earlier in their prison sentences, but this seems to be one of the few silver linings in the process.

Efficacy issues aside, the heart of the issue here is the relative lack of outrage that students seem to feel as, yet again, our own justice system may send black children to adult prison in a few months’ time.

According to a 2000 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, 55 percent of youthful inmates were black as of 1998. In the same year, 48 percent of adult inmates were black.

“Numerous reports have shown that youth of color are over-represented in the populations held in detention facilities and transferred from juvenile to adult court,” a 2007 study commissioned by the nonprofit Campaign for Youth Justice, titled “To Punish a Few,” said. Youth adjudicated in Philadelphia county from 1998 to 2006 actually seem to be getting younger: The percentage of youth aged 16 and under in Philadelphia courts actually grew from 51.7 percent of adjudicated youth in 1998 to 57.3 percent in 2008. A 2012 study conducted by the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice deduced that there is no correlation between the amount of youth transferred into adult court and a reduction in youth violence.

Before hankering for wider-sweeping police protection, keep in mind that simply locking away those that harm us does not solve the systemic disparities in race, education and poverty in America. Yes, these girls allegedly beat multiple groups of students, nearly killing one. But do their actions truly seem like the premeditated machinations of mature adults? Perhaps we should assume that foolish acts of crime occur because one is a juvenile, rather than despite the fact.

Jerry Iannelli can be reached at  jerryi@temple.edu or on Twitter @jerryiannelli.

1 Comment

  1. Being tried as adults means that these predators will now have adult criminal records.
    Like getting smashed in the face with a brick, the effect will be a lasting one.

    Hopefully your white guilt will bring you comfort should you ever find yourself at the mercy of “youth of color”. Enduring their “foolish act of crime” you can do your part to make amends.

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