Essential Pittsburgh
4:15 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

The History of Minors Being Tried As Adults

David Harris says that there has been a shift from rehabilitating kids in juvenile courts to automatically trying them as adults.
David Harris says that there has been a shift from rehabilitating kids in juvenile courts to automatically trying them as adults.
Credit University of Pittsburgh Law School

Alex Hribal, the 16 year-old student apprehended during a stabbing rampage at his high school last week, was charged as an adult. What is the history behind this decision? How did the idea manifest itself in practical terms? We posed these questions and more to our legal expert, Pitt Law Professor David Harris.

Prior to the late 1980’s, children were only tried as adults after they went through the juvenile court system. If a judge decided that they were unable to be rehabilitated, the case was passed along to adult court.

“In the world of juvenile court, at least as it used to be, you would look to see is this kid of an age and of a disposition and a mental state that we could rehabilitate him in the right circumstances. In adult court we don’t ask that question. We simply say guilty or innocent and what’s, if guilty, the appropriate punishment,” Harris said.

Harris says that the burden of proving that the case should be held in juvenile court is on the defense of the child on trial. This decision is made by an adult court judge, who considers factors such as the child’s age, the seriousness of the crime, the safety of the community and the chances of rehabilitation for the child.

In Hribal’s case, defense attorneys will most likely make a motion to have the trial moved to juvenile court within the next three to six months, Harris said. Then it will be the prosecution’s turn to either argue against the motion or agree that Hribal should be tried as a juvenile. However, Harris thinks it’s unlikely for the prosecution to agree with the defense.