Ending direct file: A step toward providing unwavering care to all our young people | Opinion

October 20, 2022

AUGUST 4, 2022

I served eight years in an adult prison, starting at the age of 17. This experience almost destroyed me.

By Andre Simms & Tracie Johnson

As a young person who was incarcerated in an adult prison as a child and an attorney who has helped young people clear juvenile and adult criminal records in an effort to overcome barriers to employment, we know that ending direct file is an important first step in protecting young people who come into contact with the criminal penal system.

Andre’s Perspective as a Directly Impacted Young Person

When I was 17 years old, I thought I would die in prison. All of the violence, pain, and trauma I was surrounded by prepared me for an early death. Part of you has to die in order to survive in prison. I was desensitized so much that I remember reaching a point where I was just numb. Living did not matter to me anymore; whatever happened, happened.

I served eight years in an adult prison, starting at the age of 17. This experience almost destroyed me.

I spent so much time in isolation once I first arrived in the jail that I had trouble adjusting to being in the population. When I was finally let out, it was difficult for me to socialize because I had constantly been in survival mode. It was extremely challenging for me to connect with others in a meaningful way. Before I went to prison as a child, I had never experienced anxiety, depression, or thoughts of self-harm. More than a year after my release, I still struggle with the psychological side effects of my confinement.

The Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP) and the Care, Not Control Campaign have played a huge role in helping me overcome the challenges of reentry. Through my role as the Lead Youth Organizer for YASP and as a member of Care, Not Control, I’m able to use my story to help advocate for young people across the state. I now get to share new perspectives with legislators and uplift the voices of young people impacted by laws like direct file, which result in children automatically being charged as adults for certain types of offenses. This work gives meaning to the atrocities I’ve been forced to endure. It helps me cope with my trauma, knowing I’m working to save other kids from these traumatic experiences.

Every second wasted results in more harm to children impacted by the criminal justice system. The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force published 35 recommendations over a year ago regarding meaningful changes to the system, such as ending direct file, prohibiting juvenile incarceration except for the most serious offenses, and requiring diversion for low-level offenses. However, most of these measures have yet to be considered. Pennsylvania lawmakers must recognize the urgency of this moment and prioritize the needs of the youth.

Lawmakers have an opportunity to improve outcomes for young people by passing SB1240 (which ends direct file and narrows transfer to adult court), SB1241 (which expands diversion and limits which youth can be sent to placement), and SB1226(which creates a mechanism for automatic expungement and lowers the waiting period for expungement of misdemeanor adjudications). Subsequently, lawmakers need to strengthen and pass bills that deal with the additional issues within the juvenile justice system addressed by the Task Force’s recommendations. Now through the Care Not Control Campaign, I’m able to collaborate with service providers who are truly dedicated to providing holistic support for young people, one of them being Tracie Johnson, who I’ve grown to respect and admire for her work within the community. I’m honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with her on this subject.

Tracie’s Perspective as a Legal Advocate

It has been a pleasure to get to know Andre as an artist and advocate who shares his story to call out the devastating reality of direct file, which is that incarcerating children with adults puts them at unnecessary risk of further violence and trauma.

As a youth justice advocate who has assisted countless young people with expunging their juvenile and criminal records, I staunchly believe that all young people should be viewed as capable of growth and change and granted the opportunity to show and prove this capacity. When we adultify our children for behaviors that are mere reflections of their youth and room for development, we stifle their ability to have a fresh start as emerging adults who have overcome pasts that may have shaped but have never defined their lives. Direct file creates this very harm by allowing prosecutors to forgo the juvenile justice system and thus forgo the protection it affords young people in favor of harsher charging, sentencing, confinement, and collateral consequences for young people who are still children.

Even when children are separated from adults in prison, young people often end up in de facto solitary confinement for a period of time which comes with its own set of mental harms given that young people are being deprived of their inherent need to socialize and build community. As such, while devastating, it is no surprise that children confined in adult prisons are nine times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilities. The harms of direct file do not end when young people return home from confinement. They are then left to deal with the stigma and barriers that come with having an adult felony criminal record.

While juvenile records are sealed, adult records, even when incurred by kids, are not. Most juvenile records are kept confidential. Only serious felony adjudications can be released on background checks, but even those records cannot be legally considered by employers. After five years, if a young person does not have any recent or pending adjudications or misdemeanor or felony convictions, their juvenile record can be expunged unless the adjudication was for a serious sexual offense. We know that expungement unlocks the opportunity for people with records to access employment, education, housing, and more opportunities. Harvard Law Review published an empirical study on the efficacy of expungements and found that people who have their records expunged experience significant wage increases. Even after one year of expungement, participants in the study averaged a wage increase of about 22 percent.

Unfortunately, expungement is not generally an option for someone with an adult conviction. Sealing may be an option for certain misdemeanor convictions once ten years have passed with no subsequent criminal justice contact. Community Legal Services is currently working to shorten those waiting periods and expand the law to include certain felony convictions. In the meantime, people with records are being denied meaningful employment because they have adult misdemeanor and felony convictions on their record. They are being judged for something that happened when they were a child. Rather than receiving the protections of the juvenile system, they are treated like adults and left to suffer severe adult consequences before they can even start their adult lives.

James Baldwin once said, “a child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot be fooled.” This quote powerfully underscores the reality that if we want our young people to believe in the beloved community we aim to create and commit to keeping it safe, we must view our young people as beloved members of our community. We cannot throw them away. We urge the Pennsylvania Legislature to end the practice of charging children automatically in adult court by passing SB1240 and take action to implement the rest of the Juvenile Justice Task Force’s recommendation to improve justice and outcomes for Pennsylvania’s youth.

Andre Simms is the Lead Youth Organizer for the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project (YASP) and a member of the Care, Not Control campaign. He is also known as hip-hop artist DayOneNotDayTwo. Tracie Johnson is a Staff Attorney at Community Legal Services.


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