By Steve E. Jarmon, Jr.
Parenting a child/minor (under the age of 18) facing criminal charges after being arrested is stressful enough. Parenting a child facing criminal charges in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic – at a time when local courts are closed – raises that level of anxiety manifold.
Fortunately, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered local courts to close as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it took steps to protect the rights of children facing criminal charges to ensure that they are not subject to undue harm.
Traditionally, a child arrested for a committing a criminal offense will be released within a few hours to the custody of his or her parents. From there, the prosecutor will refer the case to the local Juvenile Probation Department which will schedule a court hearing within a few weeks or months.
Under the Supreme Court’s recent order, these court dates will simply be delayed until the courts reopen. Thus, the rights of children released to the custody of their parents will not be negatively affected by the court’s current mandated COVID-19 closures.
For more severe criminal offenses, the story is much the same. Generally, a child held in custody at a juvenile detention facility will be brought before a judge within a few days to determine whether he or she should be released to the custody of his or her parents (as opposed to remaining in detention until the case is resolved).
In the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 virus, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court carved out an exception to the closure order to allow children to be brought before judges within a few days of their arrest to determine if they should be released, to ensure that juveniles are not held indefinitely.
The issue of social distancing is another important, hotly-debated, issue in the juvenile justice circles. Because of the public emphasis on social distancing to help stop the spread of the virus, there has been a strong push to have juveniles released to their parents’ custody or placed on home confinement (rather than detention) to ensure that the child does not get infected.
Unlike judges in adult courts, judges who oversee juvenile court must balance the child’s needs with the safety of society. Therefore, unless a child presents a danger to himself or others, absent extenuating circumstances, judges often will be persuaded to allow children to be with their families during this national crisis while their cases are pending.
Children who are already on probation who violate their probation during the court shutdown face different issues. Closure of schools throughout the state means that children will have more time on their hands, and, as a consequence, a greater chance that they will get into trouble while on probation.
Under normal circumstances, a prosecutor will bring a child who commits a minor infraction before the judge to assess the punishment. Under the current Supreme Court order, those hearings will be postponed until the courts reopen.
In situations where the violation is severe enough to require the child to be detained, the child will be brought before a judge within a few days to determine if release is warranted. Some courts have already opted to comply with social distancing guidelines by placing violators on home confinement rather than detention.
It is simply impossible to completely eradicate the stress that will be incurred in dealing with this health crisis. Collectively, we are in uncharted waters. The good news is that our Supreme Court has taken steps to ensure that the rights of children are accounted for and that the handling of their legal circumstances will not unnecessarily add to that stress.
Steve E. Jarmon is a partner at Lamb McErlane PC. His practice is primarily focused on criminal defense and he has handled hundreds of juvenile delinquency cases. firstname.lastname@example.org. 610-701-4414.