By Christopher Moraff | The Daily Beast | October 18, 2014
If Pennsylvania had set out to intentionally highlight the glaring defects in the U.S. juvenile justice system, it couldn’t have picked a better case than one initiated this week in rural Wayne County.
On Monday, prosecutors there charged a ten-year old boy as an adult for the murder of an elderly woman under the care of his grandfather—making him one of the youngest Americans ever to face a criminal homicide conviction.
According to an affidavit provided by the Wayne County District Attorney’s office (pdf), Tristen Kurilla, a fifth-grader who celebrated his tenth birthday in July, confessed to beating 90-year old Helen Novak with his fists and choking her with a cane after she yelled at him to leave her room. Novak died shortly after the assault. On Monday, Kurilla was arraigned on charges of criminal homicide and aggravated assault. He is currently being held without bail in a segregated area of Wayne County Correctional Facility away from other inmates.
By mid-week the story had made the rounds of the national media—with headlines in a number of major outlets focusing on the age of the defendant and the callous brutality of his crime. But youth advocates tell The Daily Beast that the details of the case are secondary to what it says about the lengths the U.S. still has to go in its treatment of juvenile offenders.
“There is no other country in the world that would treat a child as an adult,” said Robert Schwartz, co-founder and executive director of the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) in Philadelphia. “Social science has taught us that kids who are this young are not criminals in the same way that adults are. He has to be held accountable, yes, but in a developmentally appropriate way.”
Like many other ill-conceived criminal justice policies, the push to begin trying juveniles in adult court began in the 1990s, as state legislatures enacted a series of “get-tough” laws in response to a perceived epidemic of youth crime. Congress got into the act in 1998, passing a series of measures that tied federal grant money to the passage of state laws requiring defendants over the age of 14 charged with serious offenses be adjudicated as adults, according to the Sentencing Project.