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'It's Long, But He's Going To Get Out:' How The Court Decided Alex Hribal's Sentence

Keith Srakocic
In this Oct. 26, 2015 file photo, Alex Hribal, right, is escorted to a bail hearing in Greensburg, Pa.

In 2014, Alex Hribal was a sophomore at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville when he attacked 20 students and a security guard. The stabbings critically injured a number of victims, though all of them survived.

On Monday, Hribal, now 20, was given a prison sentence of 23-and-half to 60 years. David Harris, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh and host of the Criminal Injustice podcast spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Larkin Page-Jacobs about why Hribal was convicted as an adult, even though he committed the crime as a teen.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: For certain categories of crimes in each state, a person who is a juvenile when a crime is committed -- and these tend to be the most serious crimes like murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault or rape -- those kinds of things can warrant trying as an adult. In Alex Hribal's case, I think the prosecution moved to put him in adult court, and later motions to take him back into juvenile court were unsuccessful. 

If the person is taken out of the juvenile system, they suffer any adult penalty any adult can get. If they stay in the juvenile system, everything is designed to rehabilitate and to release them, usually by the age of 21.

LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS: That seemed to be one of the big factors, which was that Hribal had committed this crime when he was 16, and the idea that he would be free at the age of 21 just didn't seem like a strong enough response to his crimes. So the alternative, then, is to go to the other end of the spectrum, where the sentence could be much longer?

HARRIS: That's correct. We have two points on the spectrum instead of having a full spectrum available. In this case, the crimes were numerous and they were horrible, and there were injuries to many people that were life threatening. And once you put a kid in the adult system, the full weight of the system comes down on them. There is no alternative. It's not geared necessarily toward rehabilitation. We also know that there was a layer of mental health issues here. Is he going to get good treatment for his mental health issues if he goes to adult prison? Chances are he'll get some, but it's not as if he's in a mental health hospital.

PAGE-JACOBS: So later he requested to enter a guilty plea, but a mentally ill plea, and so what is that distinction? What would that have meant if the judge had accepted that?

HARRIS: In Pennsylvania, that particular plea would have meant that he would have gone into a mental hospital, at least until he was cured or reached some kind of a point where his mental illness was not ruling him. The judge denied that request.

This brings us a whole series of issues that cut across both juvenile and adult courts. Many people in the criminal justice system have mental health issues. And sometimes those mental health issues may reach the level of the 'insanity defense.' Sometimes they do not. But it does not mean that because the motion is denied, that the person isn't mentally ill. It simply means the person doesn't meet the legal definition. 

Whatever you think about the strength or weakness or the harshness of his punishment, he needs his mental health seen to if he's ever going to amount to anything. Because eventually, like most young people on a sentence like this, it's long, but he's going to get out. 

PAGE-JACOBS: And it's just a reminder I think of how much power judges can wield. 

HARRIS: Absolutely. And this is the case in any adult trial. Judges always have a uniquely powerful position and nowhere more than at sentencing. In the federal system in some state systems, there are guidelines, there are rules you have to follow. And of course the legislature sets down the minimum and maximum penalties in law, but it's up to the individual judge in the individual case to make those calls. And that's what this judge did here.