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Punishing Youth Homicide Offenders in Philadelphia

NCJ Number
Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Volume: 72 Issue: 3 Dated: (Fall 1981) Pages: 1072-1093
Date Published
22 pages
This study covers all juveniles arrested in 1 year under the charge of homicide in Philadelphia in order to investigate characteristics of their crime and the dispositional choices made by Philadelphia's Family Court concerning where these juveniles should be tried.
Particular attention is focused on two critical points: waiver to criminal court and the criminal court trial. The sample consists of 63 separate offenses for which 154 youths were arrested in 1970. Almost three-quarters of the victims and over 90 percent of the offenders were black. Family court retained jurisdiction over 79, or 51 percent, and transferred (or certified) the remaining 76 to criminal court. Overall, the array of risk factors involved in the certification decision shows that the two most potent variables are race of victim and degree of participation in the offense. These figures reveal the continuing impact of race on differential decisionmaking by the courts. When black youths kill whites, chances of certification begin at 38 percent and jump to at least 72 percent when any additional factors are present. Of the 79 juveniles retained by family court, 68 eventually reached the adjudicatory hearing stage (comparable to trial in criminal court). Of those juveniles who reached the adjudicatory hearing stage, 90 percent were adjudged delinquent. In family court, the maximum sentence is incarceration until age 21; in criminal court, the maximum sentence is death. In Philadelphia's criminal court, nonfelony killings receive less attention than felony killings from the district attorney's office for several reasons, including the fact that nonfelony killings are likely to occur between members of the same race, to be gang related, and to be precipitated by an argument. Felony-related homicides are handled on more of a case-by-case basis. These killings are much more likely to be between strangers and are often interracial. Plea bargaining in felony-related deaths is held to a minimum. Compared with adult defendants, certified juveniles are only slightly less likely to receive convictions of first or second degree murder. Data also show that juveniles face a conviction rate of 88 percent for nonfelony killings compared with the adult defendants' rate of 75 percent. These data bring into sharp relief the significance of the certification decision. Implications of this sharp contrast in sanction between two juvenile groups sharing similar characteristics are discussed. Tables, figures, and 30 footnotes are included.

Date Published: January 1, 1981