Pa. Juvenile Justice Task Force publishes report on juvenile justice system

Pennsylvania Politics

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force has completed its assessment of Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system and provided recommendations to help better the system and assist the youth that enters it.

“This is a very big day for juvenile justice in Pennsylvania,” State Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne) said. After 16 months of study, the task force released a 64-page report with 35 recommendations to make the system better.

“Ensure every young person placed in custody is safe, treated fairly, and receiving a quality education,” Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne, Wyoming) said. Keeping kids out of the system is a goal. Community-based or diversionary programs preferred to court-ordered facilities. “So they don’t begin their lives cause we all know what challenges and barriers exist when you begin your life that way,” House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Delaware, Philadelphia) said.

“Racial disparity runs rampant throughout the juvenile justice system,” task force member Helen Gym said. Data shows that white youth have more serious offenses. “They are more likely to be diverted out of the system, less likely to face charges than black and brown youth who have much more minor charges,” Gym said.

The report calls for a ban on strip searches, solitary confinement, and certain restraints. It would create the office of child advocates and eliminate fines and court costs. “The demographics show that if you don’t have money in America the justice system is not equal or equitable. This is transformative if we apply every recommendation,” Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Delaware, Philadelphia) said.

The report calls for changes and cash. That’s usually a tough sell in Harrisburg but both parties and both chambers participated so it’s got a shot. “we’re talking about kids and in most cases, kids who need the most care,” Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said.

The task force was created at the direction of Governor Tom Wolf, Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, and other state leaders.

One of the key findings from the task force was that most youths are not on a path toward adult crime. One of the biggest factors that lead to youth reoffending was over-involvement in the system, the research found. Most of the youth in the program had little or no prior history of crime. At least two-thirds of the individuals were in the system for misdemeanors of contempt from Magisterial District Court for failing to pay fines.

The study also found that written allegations don’t tend to divert youth from committing other crimes.

The report found that one of the biggest risks for youth to commit more crimes and get driven deeper into the system was a lack of supervision. 43 percent of youth who were sent directly to probation scored at the low-risk level to re-offend. Those who are sent to these facilities for their crimes spend an average of 16 months out of their homes, on average. These cases cost an average of $192,000 per year per youth, which is much higher than the cost of high-quality family therapy.

The report found that the system showed large disparities in racial and geographical outcomes, and Black, Non-Hispanic youth, especially boys, receive harsher treatment including removal from their homes and prosecution of adults.

The Task Force developed 35 recommendations to help improve the system and allow the youth to succeed in the system. Those recommendations were all developed with these goals in mind:

  • Strengthen due process and procedural safeguards
    – Increase funding for juvenile defense
    – Ensure youth and families know their rights and how to assert them
  • Employ evidence-based practices at every stage of the juvenile justice process
  • Raise the minimum age for when a youth can be tried in juvenile court
  • Narrow the criteria for trying young people as adults in criminal court
    – Eliminate the practice of “direct file” and instead require a hearing before a juvenile court judge
  • Consistently divert young people with low-level cases to community-based interventions in lieu of formal
    delinquency proceedings
    – Expand services as alternatives to arrest, expand and standardize diversion, and prohibit written
    allegations for failure to pay a fine in Magisterial District Court
  • Focus the use of pre-adjudication detention
  • Focus the use of residential placement on young people who pose a threat to community safety, and keep youth out of home no longer than the timeframe supported by research
  • Reinvest averted costs in non-residential evidence-based practices and increased access to services
  • Prioritize restitution payments to victims and prevent unnecessary system involvement by eliminating the
    imposition of fines and most court fees and costs
  • Ensure that young people who have completed their obligations to the court are not held back from
    successful transition into adulthood by records of juvenile justice system involvement
  • Improve oversight to ensure that every young person placed in the custody of the Commonwealth is safe,
    treated fairly, and receiving a quality education
  • Increase system accountability and address inequities through enhanced data reporting to the public and
    wider representation on oversight bodies

The Task Force estimates that the state could free up over $81 million in costs over the next five years if these goals are met. They recommend that the savings be reinvested into a range of other areas of need in the state.

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