This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
With the primary elections just two weeks away, City Council member-at-large Helen Gym organized a forum for candidates running for district attorney of Philadelphia to answer questions from local students and community members about juvenile justice.
Seven of the eight candidates took the stage at Ben Franklin High School in the Spring Garden section and shared their stances on various youth-related issues including life sentences for juveniles, trying and sentencing juveniles as adults, the death penalty, and expungement laws.
The candidates were Jack O’Neill (D), Rich Negrin (D), Larry Krasner (D), Joe Khan (D), Beth Grossman (R), Tariq El-Shabazz (D), and Teresa Carr-Deni (D). Candidate Michael Untermayer (D) didn’t attend.
Lauren Fine, co-founder of the Youth Sentencing and Re-entry Project, a non-profit organization fighting for juvenile justice reform, and Marcus Allen, CEO of Big Brother Big Sister Independence, a non-profit child mentoring organization, moderated the event.
“We needed to have a forum that was solely dedicated and led by our young people,” said Gym.
“What the people have to remember is that the district attorney has an enormous amount of discretion, and they can exercise that discretion if they choose to to make a difference in the lives of young people.”
Five students asked the candidates questions by presenting scenarios to see how each would handle the matter.
For example, Terrence Williams, 21, a member of Youth Art Empowerment, was among a group of suspects arrested for an armed home invasion when he was 17.
During the months-long preliminary hearing for his trial, Williams turned 18, and was then offered a plea bargain that allowed him to be sentenced to a juvenile facility, but be convicted as an adult.
Williams took the deal, and now carries a felony on his record, making it difficult for him to find employment. His question to the candidates — sans O’Neill and El-Shabazz, both of whom left early — was how would they have handled his case.
Each candidate considered the severity of the crime and whether Williams was coaxed into participating. Ultimately, they all said that they prefered to keep the case in the juvenile system, but their responses differed in how they would have gone about keeping him from being tried as an adult.
However, Williams was looking for simpler answers.
“I don’t think the answers were quite right,” said Williams. He was looking for an answer that was unequivocal in keeping the entire case within the juvenile realm.
“I think they should’ve just said, ‘You were 17 when you committed the crime. I would’ve sent you to the juvenile [justice] system.’
“That would’ve been the best answer, but they try to say what you want to hear because they have an election coming up.”
Candidates also fielded yes or no questions from the moderators, Fine and Allen. They were asked about such topics as solitary confinement for youth in adult jails, and holding youth in adult facilities before trial, and the use of improperly gathered evidence such as questioning a juvenile without a parent present. All unanimously opposed the use of each practice.
They were also asked about the death penalty, banned by the U.S. Supreme Court for juveniles in 2005 but still permissible for adults. All opposed it, except Carr-Deni, who said "it should not be taken off the table."
Norman Bryant, 47, a former juvenile lifer, now out on parole after being resentenced, attended the forum. He said if people don’t come out to vote in smaller elections like the local primaries, and hold elected officials to their word, things are less likely to change.
“This is where the policy begins,” he said. “It starts on a lower level. And until we start realizing that and start holding these lower politicians accountable, we’re going to keep being treated the way we are treated.”
The primary election will be held on May 16.