Pennsylvania can’t wait any longer for juvenile justice reform | Opinion

Bills before the state House and Senate would help Pennsylvania’s youth and a system that badly needs a fix

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, joined Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday to announce the new Juvenile Justice Task Force. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

By Malik Pickett

Last week marked two years since the release of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force Report.  Despite 30 juvenile justice stakeholders spending a year and a half analyzing the flaws of Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, and creating 35 common-sense recommendations for reform, the Pennsylvania Legislature has not passed one piece of reform legislation since the report was released. 

As bills move throughout the Legislature before the summer hiatus, we must prioritize these necessary reforms to our juvenile justice system.  Officials from each branch of government convened the bi-partisan Task Force in December of 2019 following the grievous abuses at Glen Mills and other residential facilities in Pennsylvania. 

The main takeaways from the Task Force’s report are (1) too many youth are funneled into the juvenile justice system and incarcerated for minor offenses, (2) diversion is severely underutilized despite being effective when used, and (3) the juvenile justice system is riddled with racial disparities with Black and Brown youth being more likely to enter the system and facing much worse outcomes compared to white youth. 

These issues persist today and are even more prevalent, with reports of overcrowding in multiple detention facilities across the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania can change that narrative by passing pending legislation that would enact key Task Force recommendations. 

Sen. Camera Bartolotta,  R-Westmoreland, along with Sens. Anthony Williams, and Vincent Hughes, both Philadelphia Democrats, recently introduced such legislation.  

The first, SB751, recognizes that adult court is not a developmentally appropriate environment for children and eliminates direct file (the process whereby children are automatically tried in adult court, bypassing the juvenile justice system entirely).

The second, SB 752, acknowledges the harms and abuse that youth suffer while being incarcerated and in the juvenile justice system. It mandates diversion (a process allowing youth to participate in community-based programming instead of formal system involvement) and places strict limits on the use of pre-trial detention and placement.  

The Juvenile Justice Task Force report gave us a roadmap to reform. Now it’s up to lawmakers to finish the job | Opinion

Democratic state Reps. Dan Miller, of Allegheny County, joined by Jordan Harris, and Donna Bullock, both of Philadelphia, recently introduced another vital piece of legislation that would make a huge difference for children across the Commonwealth.

House Bill 1381, an omnibus juvenile justice reform bill, would enact even more of the Task Force recommendations. In addition to the reforms proposed by the Senate Bills, HB 1381: eliminates the imposition of most fines and fees in the juvenile justice system, raises the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 10 to 13, eliminates referrals to the juvenile justice system for non-payment of magisterial district court fines for youth, and has a host of other important reforms.  

These key pieces of legislation are supported by the data, and championed by youth, community members, and advocates who recognize the need for transformational change in our juvenile justice system.

Currently, SB 751 and 752 are in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and HB 1381 is in the House Judiciary Committee.   

Aside from repairing the harms of the juvenile justice system, these bills will help alleviate and prevent overcrowding of detention facilities. 

Philadelphia’s Juvenile Justice Study Center (PJJSC), the local youth detention facility, is severely overcrowded; at times there are over 230 youth in a facility built to hold 184. 

Youth at the PJJSC report being deprived of education, adequate treatment services, and sometimes even places to sleep (some youth sleep on mattresses in administrative offices). 

Pa.’s juvenile detention centers are overcrowded, but building more isn’t the answer, advocates say

Parents have complained that their children are facing conflict and violence.  Sadly, the problem isn’t limited to Philadelphia: counties around Pennsylvania have complained of a lack of detention bed space for youth.

Three contributing factors to these issues are: (1) our system is clogged with too many youth charged with low-level offenses that can easily be diverted, (2) many of our detention facilities have closed after findings of abuse and neglect of the youth in their care, and (3) youth who have been sent to placement are held in detention facilities awaiting the availability of placement beds. 

Placing strict limits on who can enter the system or be sent to detention and placement will clear out our detention facilities and prevent overcrowding.    

The data from the system, the stories from countless youth and their families who have experienced the system, and the many closures of residential facilities in Pennsylvania plainly show that our juvenile justice system desperately needs reform. 

Malik Pickett is a staff attorney for Juvenile Law Center.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.