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Pennsylvania Exclusions, 1996

Study overview

Pennsylvania’s exclusion provisions

Prior to 1996, the only juveniles under age 18 who were excluded from the juvenile court’s jurisdiction in Pennsylvania were those charged with murder.

Prior to 1996, the only juveniles under age 18 who were excluded from the juvenile court’s jurisdiction in Pennsylvania were those charged with murder. Other juveniles could reach the criminal justice system only by judicial waiver. The State’s transfer mechanisms were expanded in March 1996. The new legislation (Act 33) amended Pennsylvania law by excluding from the juvenile court’s jurisdiction youth who met all of the following conditions:

  • Youth who were 15 years of age or older at the time of their alleged conduct.

  • Youth who were charged with any of a list of violent crimes (i.e., rape; involuntary deviate sexual intercourse; aggravated assault; robbery; robbery of a motor vehicle; aggravated indecent assault; kidnaping; voluntary manslaughter; or an attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit murder or any of the crimes listed).

  • Youth who allegedly committed the offense with a deadly weapon or were adjudicated previously for one of the excluded offenses.

Although the details of implementing this new legislation were left to individual counties, the general processing of these excluded cases was as follows. At arrest, law enforcement officers (with the assistance of juvenile probation, when necessary) were to determine if, in their judgment, the youth met the exclusion criteria. If so, the youth would be arraigned and the bail set. When the parties were ready, the youth would be brought before a magistrate for a preliminary hearing, and the facts of the case would be presented. If a prima facie case could not be established, the case would be dismissed. At the preliminary hearing, if it was determined that the incident did not meet the exclusion criteria but that the youth could be charged with a delinquent act, the case would be refiled in juvenile court. If a prima facie case was made and circumstances met the exclusion criteria, a trial date was set in criminal court. At the youth’s request, the first hearing in criminal court could be a decertification hearing, at which the youth would petition to have the case transferred to juvenile court. The decertification guidelines in the exclusion legislation paralleled those guidelines that legislators had noted should be considered by juvenile court judges when making waiver decisions. If the case was decertified, the matter was handled in juvenile court. If the decertification request was denied, the case was tried in criminal court.

Data collection on Pennsylvania’s exclusions

In three Pennsylvania counties, the study tracked all cases that were excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction as a result of the expanded exclusion criteria in Act 33, which took effect on March 18, 1996. The three counties (Allegheny, Dauphin, and Philadelphia) contain the cities of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia, respectively. In 1995, these counties processed 40 percent of all delinquency cases handled in juvenile courts in the State and 51 percent of all cases that were judicially waived to criminal court statewide.

Overall, the excluded youth were younger than those waived: 20 percent of the excluded youth were under age 16 at the time of their preliminary hearing, whereas 5 percent of waived juveniles were under age 16 on the date their waiver petition was filed in juvenile court.

At the time of the study, there was no systematic method for tracking cases excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction in Pennsylvania. With the cooperation of local court and probation personnel, the study team received the names and case numbers of all youth who had a preliminary hearing between March 18, 1996, and December 31, 1996, and were believed to meet Act 33’s exclusion criteria.8 With this information, the study team reviewed the records of local magistrates, juvenile courts, court clerks, and criminal courts to collect the information required on the data collection form. The study team returned to these agencies several times to update information on open cases. The team’s last attempt to collect data on the cases took place in January 1998. At that time, 12 percent of the 473 cases initially excluded from juvenile jurisdiction in 1996 remained open, with no final disposition in either criminal or juvenile court.

Pennsylvania exclusion findings

Of the 473 cases reviewed by the study team, 46 percent involved a charge of robbery; 48 percent, aggravated assault; 1 percent, a violent sex offense; and 4 percent, other offenses. Consistent with the Act 33 criteria, a weapon was noted in the record of 96 percent of the cases. In 67 percent of these, the weapon was a firearm. Another 20 percent involved knives, and 8 percent involved clubs or blunt objects. In 61 percent of weapon cases, the weapon was used, as opposed to being brandished or simply present. Few of these crimes were labeled as gang motivated (less than 3 percent).

In addition to examining the types of offenses and the presence of weapons in excluded cases, the study team compared the demographic and legal backgrounds of the 473 youth with those of 210 youth who were judicially waived to criminal court in 1994 in the same three counties for the same set of offenses. The comparison revealed that similar proportions of excluded and waived youth were black (81 percent for exclusions and 83 percent for waivers). However, 13 percent of youth excluded in 1996 were female, compared with 1 percent of the juveniles waived for similar charges in 1994. Overall, the excluded youth were younger than those waived: 20 percent of the excluded youth were under age 16 at the time of their preliminary hearing, whereas 5 percent of waived juveniles were under age 16 on the date their waiver petition was filed in juvenile court. Correspondingly, 50 percent of the excluded youth were age 17 or older at the time of their preliminary hearing, compared with 75 percent of waived juveniles who were 17 or older when their waiver petition was filed.

Overall, the youth excluded in 1996 were younger and had less serious juvenile court histories than the sample of youth waived in 1994.

The youth excluded from juvenile court in 1996 had less extensive legal (i.e., juvenile court) histories than the comparison sample of juveniles waived in 1994. More than one-third (37 percent) of the excluded youth had never been formally processed in juvenile court, and more than one-half (53 percent) had never been adjudicated in juvenile court. By contrast, just 7 percent of the comparison sample of juveniles waived to criminal court in 1994 had never been adjudicated in juvenile court. A study of the offense history of the two groups showed that 25 percent of the youth excluded in 1996 had at least one prior adjudication for a serious person offense, compared with 46 percent of juveniles in the comparison sample of 1994 waivers.

This study also showed that youth excluded in 1996 had received less treatment in the juvenile justice system than the juveniles in the 1994 comparison sample. Compared with the 1994 waivers, youth excluded in 1996 were less likely to have been placed on probation by a juvenile court (36 percent versus 52 percent) and less likely to have been placed in a residential facility by a juvenile court (28 percent versus 68 percent). Overall, the youth excluded in 1996 were younger and had less serious juvenile court histories than the sample of youth waived in 1994.

For half of the excluded cases, the time elapsing between a juvenile’s arrest and his or her preliminary hearing was 12 days or less; by 48 days, 75 percent of excluded cases had had their preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, 19 percent of excluded cases were dismissed and 1 percent were refiled in juvenile court (see figure). The other 80 percent of excluded cases moved deeper into the criminal justice system. At this point, each youth had the right to petition the court for a decertification hearing, essentially asking the criminal court to waive its jurisdiction over the matter and send the case to juvenile court. Available court records did not indicate the precise number of youth who requested decertification hearings. Records, however, did show that more than one-third (38 percent) of the excluded youth held for criminal court sanctioning after the preliminary hearing were decertified and their cases petitioned for adjudication in a juvenile court. The remaining approximately two-thirds (62 percent) of cases held for criminal court sanctioning were scheduled for trial in a criminal court.

Figure: Of every 100 delinquency cases originally excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction in 3 counties in Pennsylvania in 1996, about one-fourth resulted in criminal court conviction

Bail Amounts

Shortly after arrest, the excluded youth had an arraignment hearing, at which time charges were presented and bail was set. The average bail was $17,770, and the median was $10,000. Bail amounts ranged up to $250,000. Bail amounts set in cases that were eventually tried in criminal court were significantly higher than those set in cases that were decertified and sent to juvenile court, with averages of $22,800 and $12,900 and medians of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, for the two types of cases.

The excluded youth who remained in the criminal justice system differed from those who were decertified and eventually handled in the juvenile justice system (table 24). White youth, for example, constituted a greater proportion of decertified cases than cases remaining in criminal court. In fact, white youth were significantly more likely to be decertified than other youth. Decertified youth were also younger, on average, than youth processed in criminal court. Although nearly all excluded cases involved incidents in which a weapon was present, use of the weapon was not predictive of how the case would be processed. The presence of a firearm (as opposed to a knife, club, or personal weapon), however, significantly increased the likelihood that the case would remain in criminal court.

Table 24: Attributes of Cases Excluded in Pennsylvania in 1996 and Disposed in Juvenile or Criminal Court

Along with incident characteristics, a youth’s legal history affected the processing of his or her case. The criminal court, for instance, was significantly more likely to decertify youth with no prior juvenile court referrals and no prior referrals for a serious offense. The criminal court also tended to decertify youth with no prior adjudications in juvenile court; however, the difference did not reach statistical significance. On the other hand, the criminal court was significantly more likely to retain for criminal trial those youth who had previously been placed either on formal probation or in a residential facility by a juvenile court.

The length of time that elapsed between the date of a juvenile’s preliminary hearing and the date of juvenile court disposition varied with the disposition of the case.

Juvenile courts disposed of 149 of the initially excluded cases and dismissed 26 percent of them. By the end of the data collection period (22 months after initiation of the first excluded case and 13 months after initiation of the last excluded case), 12 (8 percent) of the initially excluded cases that were handled in juvenile court remained open. Of the cases adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court, the court ordered 55 percent of youth placed in a residential facility and 43 percent placed on probation.

The length of time that elapsed between the date of a juvenile’s preliminary hearing and the date of juvenile court disposition varied with the disposition of the case. Eliminating cases that remained open at the end of the study period, the juvenile court took an average of 172 days to dispose cases that were eventually dismissed. The one case that was judicially waived back to criminal court was refiled in criminal court 38 days after the date of the preliminary hearing. The juvenile court took an average of 145 days from the date of the preliminary hearing to complete cases in which a youth was ordered to a residential facility and an average of 116 days to complete cases in which a youth was ordered to probation. The juvenile court ordered youth to a residential facility in 39 percent of completed cases and placed youth on probation in 31 percent of completed cases. In all, the juvenile court disposed of initially excluded cases in an average of 143 days from the date of the preliminary hearing.

Of the cases initially excluded from juvenile court jurisdiction in 1996, 50 percent (236 cases) were tried in criminal court. Of these, 46 (19 percent) were still open at the end of the study period. The criminal court disposed the remaining 190 cases (40 percent of all initially excluded cases) by the end of the study.

Exclusion laws are often promoted as a way to take a greater number of serious delinquents off the streets for a longer period of time.

Of the cases completed in criminal court, 43 percent were dismissed. The time elapsing between the preliminary hearing and disposition for these cases was, on average, 89 days. The criminal court sentenced youth to an adult correctional facility in 48 percent of completed cases. The average minimum sentence length ordered for those incarcerated was 3 years and 7 months. (The average county jail sentence was 1 year, and the average minimum commitment to a State prison was 5 years and 3 months.) When the criminal court sentenced youth to an adult correctional facility, it reached its disposition in an average of 252 days after the preliminary hearing—taking on average 247 days for a commitment to State prison and 260 days for a commitment to county jail. Eight percent of completed criminal court cases ended in an order of probation; these cases were completed in an average of 251 days. The average minimum length of probation was 6 years and 4 months. Probation was also ordered in cases in which youth were sentenced to an adult correctional facility. In incarceration cases, the average minimum length of probation was 5 years and 9 months.

Exclusion laws are often promoted as a way to take a greater number of serious delinquents off the streets for a longer period of time. Results of the study, however, indicate that exclusion laws do not always do so. By the end of the study period, 19 percent of all cases excluded in 1996 were completed and had resulted in sentences to an adult prison or jail. The juvenile court had placed 36 percent of the decertified excluded cases in a residential facility, compared with 39 percent of the excluded cases that remained on the criminal court’s caseload. The juvenile court sentences were indeterminate. However, assuming that the juvenile court held serious offenders in a juvenile facility for at least 12 months, no more than 13 percent of all excluded youth (61 youth) received longer sentences in the criminal justice system than they would have received in the juvenile justice system. In addition, the juvenile court placement would have begun 3 1/2 months earlier than the criminal court incarceration.

Juvenile courts in the three Pennsylvania counties judicially waived 277 youth in 1995. In 1996, when the State’s exclusion law took effect, waivers dropped to 157. Of the 473 cases excluded in 1996, a total of 109 resulted in conviction in criminal court. Assuming that the criminal court cases that remained open at the end of the study period resulted in the same proportion of convictions and dismissals, approximately 135 of the 473 excluded youth were eventually convicted in criminal court. Therefore, the drop in the number of waived youth between 1995 and 1996 (n =120) was nearly equal to the estimated number of excluded youth convicted in criminal court by the time all cases were closed (n =135). These numbers suggest that the ultimate impact of Pennsylvania’s exclusion legislation in 1996 was to retain in criminal court those cases that the juvenile court would have judicially waived had it been given the opportunity. Thus, regardless of the transfer path in Pennsylvania—judicial waiver or legislative exclusion—approximately the same number of youth were sentenced to an adult correctional facility.


8 Staff from NCJJ were responsible for data collection in Allegheny County, and researchers from the Juvenile Court Judges Commission’s Center for Juvenile Justice Research and Training collected data in Dauphin and Philadelphia counties.

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