In re DCD: Best Interests of a Juvenile Delinquent Beat out Concerns over Community Welfare
DCD, a ten-year-old child with a low IQ, was adjudicated delinquent after sexually assaulting his younger sister. Several sexual assaults followed as DCD was moved from facility to facility and given treatments that ultimately did not help him progress. After several assaults, there were few facilities that were open to him, due to his record, his young age, the lack of contracts with the county, and his specific needs. One facility was eligible to take him, but would not because of their agreement with the local township not to take juveniles with current sexual assault delinquency adjudications. However, they intimated that they would accept him if his delinquency adjudication were terminated.
The trial court agreed to terminate his adjudication over the Commonwealth’s objection on the basis that the child needed to be moved from his current facility immediately, and that the only option to get him appropriate treatment was to terminate his delinquency.
Majority by Baer: Juvenile courts may unequally consider the three factors of BARJ
Justice Baer, writing for the majority, discussed the goal of “balanced and restorative justice” (BARJ) that is baked into the Juvenile Act. This “BARJ” is served by three goals in the Act and in the Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure:
- Community protection;
- Accountability; and
Furthermore, in determining the proper disposition of a child adjudicated delinquent, the trial court is required to consider what is “best suited” to the child’s treatment, supervision, rehabilitation and welfare, but must do so in a way “consistent” with the protection of the public interest. The majority ruled that this wording showed that the emphasis of the statute was on the rehabilitation of the offender, and that public protection was a secondary goal. The trial court must weigh the three factors, but need not give equal weight to the three. This conclusion was bolstered by the General Assembly’s directive to the courts to “use the least restrictive intervention consistent with community protection.” (citing 42 Pa.C.S. § 6301(b)(3)(i)).
In this case, where the trial court found that the child’s only option to get serious treatment was at a facility that could only house him if his delinquency adjudication was terminated, it was appropriate for a trial court to find that the interests of rehabilitation weighed more heavily than community protection. “The [trial] court had no hesitation in rejecting continued placement” at the juvenile’s current facility due to the “paucity of proper treatment provided to D.C.D.” at the present facility. The need to find an immediate place for him weighed in favor of terminating the adjudication of delinquency.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s majority “view[s] it incumbent upon this Commonwealth’s juvenile court judges to consider specifically the three factors of BARJ when determining whether compelling reasons exist in the context of a motion for early termination of delinquency supervision, as with all other dispositions under the Juvenile Act. Balanced attention to the three factors, however, does not require that the factors themselves be equally weighted in the ultimate decision.”
Finding that the trial court had considered the three factors—even though he had not explicitly named them as such—the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the decision.
Dissent by Mundy: Serious offenses of DCD should have precluded termination of his supervision
While acknowledging that the trial court had taken DCD’s best interests into account, Justice Mundy dissented due to the seriousness of his crimes, and due to the need for community protection. “Based on the serious offenses D.C.D. has been adjudicated delinquent of, and the subsequent concerns about his progress with respect to personal boundaries and appropriate behavior, I cannot agree that terminating Juvenile Probation’s supervision to accommodate acceptance into a treatment program, which prohibits individuals who have active adjudications of delinquency for sexually-based delinquent acts, is appropriate.”
Conclusion: Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is willing to protect the rights of all, even those accused of sexual assault
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania continues to chart a path respecting the rights of the worst accused, this term. Much as in Commonwealth v. Maconeghy, Jr., this decision shows the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s strict adherence to the text of a statute, even where it favors a young perpetrator of sexual assault. This may not be welcome news to all: Justice Mundy has dissent in both of these cases. But these opinions reflect an important role of a Supreme Court in our society. While society is finally waking up to the crisis of sexual assault going on in our midst, and proposing more serious penalties for perpetrators, it will remain the role of the dispassionate courts of our Commonwealth and country to ensure that those accused of crimes get fair trials and are punished justly.