New law takes effect in Erie County
The recent increase in Erie youth violent crime has kept police busy and prompted the Erie Unified Crime Initiative to tailor its prevention efforts to middle-aged children.
The surge also brings a new level of activity to the Erie County Courthouse.
Judges are preparing to hold the county’s first “in the interests of justice” hearings.
Hearings are for young defendants charged as adults with violent crimes, such as those involving firearms.
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The hearings are aimed at determining whether these young defendants should stay at the Edmund L. Thomas Youth Center or be transferred to the Erie County Jail.
The change aims to add safeguards to the treatment of juvenile defendants by distancing them from adult detainees as long as the juvenile defendants await prosecution and are presumed innocent. Their accommodation would automatically change if they were convicted in adult criminal court.
“The intent of this rule is to not mix minors with adults,” said Erie County Judge John J. Trucilla, who oversees administration of the local juvenile justice system. “It’s an extra layer of protection.”
No one I spoke to — including Trucilla, defense attorneys, and the district attorney — questioned the reasoning behind the change. But they said they were a little uncertain about how the new hearings would go.
“It’s going to be kind of a learning as you go,” said Eric Hackwelder, a defense attorney representing a young defendant who may face a hearing in the interests of justice.
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Until recently, young defendants charged as adults and not released on bail went first to the Erie County Jail at East 18th and Ash streets. It is designed to hold up to 900 inmates with a “safe operating capacity” of 720, according to the prison.
Juvenile defendants not charged as adults and not released on bail would go to the Edmund L. Thomas Youth Center on the former Pleasant Ridge Manor East property in Millcreek Township. It has 20 beds for minors accused of crimes.
Regular juvenile defendants still go to the Edmund L. Thomas Teen Center. But now joining them are young defendants charged as adults under the Fisher Bill, which the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed in 1995 to combat juvenile crime.
Juveniles charged under the Fisher Bill can be transferred from the Edmund L. Thomas Youth Center to Erie County Jail.
But for that to happen under the new system, the district attorney’s office must ask a judge to hold a hearing in the interests of justice on the minor’s case. And then the judge has to agree to the transfer.
The major change in housing for young offenders is the result of action at the federal level.
After years of debate, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in December 2018, which amends the landmark Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. with adult prisoners or being held in an adult prison or holding cell” in almost all circumstances, unless a judge orders otherwise.
Among the factors a judge must consider at a hearing in the interests of justice are the age of a young accused and the nature and circumstances of the charges.
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The Juvenile Justice Reform Act requires the housing provision for accused minors to come into effect no later than three years after the law was passed on December 21, 2018.
In Erie County, the change applies to all minors charged after Dec. 21, 2021, though Judge Trucilla told me his latest understanding is that the law is retroactive. This means it applies to minors who were charged as adults before December 21, 2021 and are still being held in the Erie County Jail pending resolution of their case.
Trucilla said judges and other court officials are considering how to move forward under the new law. He said they are aware of the potential that authorities may have to find other secure facilities to house the accused youths if the local spike in youth crime continues and all beds at the Edmund L. Thomas Youth Center are filled.
“We are aware of that,” Trucilla said. “We’re still looking at bed space.”
When Trucilla and I spoke on March 25, four minors charged as adults were at the Edmund L. Thomas Youth Center, four were in Erie County Jail and four were on bail, according to county figures. .
Also on March 25, Erie County District Attorney Elizabeth Hirz told me that her office had filed motions in three cases seeking a hearing in the interests of juvenile justice that her office wanted to be transferred to Erie County Jail.
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Requests to transfer minors to Erie County Jail should be made “on a case-by-case basis and not automatically,” Hirz said. “We should have two or three more to come.”
Erie County’s first interest of justice hearing is scheduled for Wednesday before Judge John J. Mead.