We ought to rethink how juvenile homicide cases are handled in Pennsylvania [editorial]

The LNP | Lancaster Online Editorial Board , Lancaster Online •
gavel in courtroom

The Issue 

“If the attorney for the 14-year-old Manheim Township girl charged as an adult in the stabbing death of her older sister tries to have her case moved to juvenile court, she will face an almost impossible task,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin reported in Sunday’s edition. “A review of LNP | LancasterOnline archives going back five decades found only one case in more than a dozen in which an attorney persuaded a judge that a minor charged with homicide should be handled in juvenile court.” And, Nephin noted, the facts of that one “case differ from the accusations Claire Miller is facing.” That 1999 case involved an Elizabethtown 14-year-old who gave birth and was accused of smothering the infant and placing it in a drawer; a deal was reached with prosecutors. Attorney Robert Beyer, who represented that teen, also represents Claire Miller.

We are not going to speculate on the tragedy that has devastated the Miller family, or what might have led Claire Miller to allegedly kill her 19-year-old sister Helen. There’s been too much of that already, and we do not want to add to the unimaginable grief that the sisters’ parents must be experiencing. We’re just going to emphasize these two things, which might seem contradictory, but are nevertheless true:

The life of Helen Miller, who had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair, was precious and important.
And Claire Miller is a child, and adult court is a terrible venue for the hearing of her case.
It’s a terrible venue for the hearing of any case involving child defendants, no matter how serious the offense.
We are not examining any one case today, but rather looking at how our system handles juvenile justice.

As the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and American Medical Association noted in a brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, the adolescent brain simply works differently from — and is structurally less mature than — the adult brain.

Even at later stages of adolescence, youths “are more likely than adults to engage in risky, impulsive, and sensation-seeking behavior,” the brief pointed out, noting that adolescents “overvalue short-term benefits and rewards, and are less capable of controlling their impulses making them susceptible to acting in a reflexive rather than a planned voluntary manner.”

They are more emotionally volatile and more susceptible to stress.
The “average adolescent cannot be expected to act with the same control or foresight as a mature adult,” the brief stated.
This is supported by brain imaging studies, which demonstrate “that the brain continues to mature, both structurally and functionally, throughout adolescence in regions of the brain responsible for controlling thoughts, actions, and emotions.”

 

To read the full editorial piece and to hear from Juvenile Law Center Managing Director Riya Saha Shah, Esq. click here. 

 

About the Expert
Riya leads the organization’s work on juvenile record confidentiality and expungement. She has written extensively on collateral consequences, expungement, and the right to counsel, and was instrumental in Pennsylvania’s successful challenge to the imposition of harsh registration laws for youth charged with sexual offenses.