An adult homicide charge has been filed against a 14-year-old Mount Pleasant boy after he allegedly shot and killed his 13-year-old friend while playing with a handgun in a neighbor’s house.
A Westmoreland County judge will now have to decide whether to decertify the case, which would send it to juvenile court for a maximum possible sentence of seven years, when the boy would turn 21.
Monroeville attorney Patrick Thomassey, who has represented juveniles facing adult charges, said the limitations of juvenile courts' jurisdictions in Pennsylvania make that a tough choice.
“The judge would have to decide, ‘Well, if I send this back to juvenile court, they lose jurisdiction over him when he’s 21 years old,'" Thomassey said. "So, if he’s 17, that’s only four years, and a lot of times, the judges don’t feel that that’s sufficient punishment for someone who does something like that."
Thomassey said he’d like Pennsylvania to increase the jurisdiction of juvenile courts to the age 25 or 26. He said that change could cut down on adult charges against minors by giving judges the option for longer juvenile sentences.
University of Pittsburgh sociology professor Jeffrey Shook said, while homicide charges against minors have long been automatically filed as adult charges, Pennsylvania is one of many states that have enacted laws to allow more adult charges against juveniles.
“In the '80s and '90s, we really extended them, and made it easier to treat juveniles as adults and increased the eligibility so more juveniles could be tried as adults," Shook said. "And I think those policies have not worked out."
"These young people, we just said, 'They committed an adult crime; give them adult time,' and we're starting to think more rationally about this right now," Shook added.
Shook said he believes it’s in the best interest of the public for all minors to be tried in the juvenile justice system.
If the judge in the case decides the Mount Pleasant boy should be tried as an adult, a jury would determine the category of the alleged homicide, ranging from manslaughter to murder.
The boy faces a preliminary hearing Thursday for the homicide charge and for a charge of illegal possession of a firearm by a minor.
The borough of about 4,500 residents is roughly 45 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, close to Westmoreland County's southern border.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.