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Can a Child Under 18 Be Sent to Adult Prison In Pennsylvania for a First Offense?


As a lawyer who handles the defense of juveniles facing criminal charges, one question I am frequently asked is whether a child under 18 years old be sent to adult prison or given an adult criminal record in Pennsylvania for a first offense? The answer is yes. In fact, that happened to a 16 year old girl in Delaware County this week. She was sentenced to serve 6 to 23 months in prison for her role in the assault of an adult. One of the other teens involved in the beating took a video of the crime and posted it on facebook.

Despite the fact that it was the first time that the girl had been in trouble, she was charged as an adult, convicted as an adult, and sentenced to serve time in an adult prison.

This is possible under Pennsylvania law. Juveniles or minors can be charged, tried, and sentenced as adults in many cases. Certain children are charged directly in adult court for their crimes without a hearing in juvenile (or family) court. These children are sometimes referred to as Direct File Juveniles, or DFJs. All murder charges are prosecuted initially in adult court. In addition, if a child aged 15 or older is charged with any of the following crimes and a weapon was used during the commission of the offense they will be charged in adult court initially:​

  • Aggravated assault
  • Robbery
  • Robbery of motor vehicle (i.e., Carjacking)
  • Aggravated indecent assault
  • Involuntary deviate sexual intercourse
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Voluntary manslaughter

A child can be charged in adult court even if he or she is only charged with (1) attempting to commit, (2) solicitation to commit, or (3) being part of a conspiracy to commit any of these crimes.

In addition, a child aged 15 or over will be a DFJ charged in adult court for any of the crimes above even if there was no weapon involved, if the child was previously adjudicated delinquent of any of the listed crimes before. Adjudicated delinquent is, roughly speaking, the juvenile court equivalent of a conviction in adult court.

However, these DFJ offenses are just one way to end up in adult court under Pennsylvania law. If a child aged 14 or older is charged with any felony, their case can be “certified” and transferred to adult court if a judge finds “that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the public interest is served by the transfer of the case for criminal prosecution.” Many felonies are non-violent offenses such as drug delivery, many theft offenses, and certain types of criminal mischief.

The stakes are high in juvenile court, and charges can leave a lasting, or even permanent effect on a child. Juvenile court proceedings are governed by their own rules and procedures. This presents problems for inexperienced attorneys and opportunities for seasoned lawyers. Every on of our attorneys are criminal defense attorneys and former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorneys who served in the Juvenile Unit with more than 40 years of combined experience. Michael Parkinson, Timothy Tarpey, and James Lloyd have handled hundreds of cases involving charges against juveniles, including expungements. Talk to an experienced attorney to learn about your child’s rights and defend them in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware Counties. Call us at (215) 352-3432.