Commentary

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

Glen Mills, Wordsworth, Devereaux, and most recently the Delaware County Juvenile Justice Center are all highly publicized scandals involving the abuse of children inside Pennsylvania juvenile facilities.

Abuses such as these precipitated Gov. Tom Wolf’s creation of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force which studied the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system for 16 months to create recommendations for reform. Last week, the task force released its final report containing those recommendations.

While the release of the final report signals the end of the task force’s activity, it is the beginning of the process through which the Legislature can give life to these recommendations by enacting them into legislation.

Throughout the initial task force meetings, the Pew Charitable Trusts (the entity providing technical assistance to the task force) presented data regarding the different stages of Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system. The data underscored how our juvenile justice system is underserving youth at every stage, and primarily Black and Brown youth.

It starts at arrest, where the most serious offense for at least two-thirds of youth entering the juvenile justice system is either a misdemeanor or contempt from Magisterial District Court for failing to pay a fine. Even though youth are primarily arrested for minor offenses, only 35 percent of youth receive diversion despite those programs having an 80 percent success rate.

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PA Juvenile Justice Task Force Report and Recommendations FINAL by jmicek on Scribd

In fact, many of those youth are sent to placement resulting in nearly 66 percent of placement dispositions stemming from non-felony offenses.  These placement decisions are the product of Pennsylvania spending 80 percent of its juvenile delinquency expenditure on out-of-home placement, which studies have shown does not decrease recidivism.

Black and Brown youth are more negatively impacted by these decisions than their white counterparts. When compared to white youth, Black and Brown youth are: more likely to be arrested; more likely to be detained pre-adjudication; more likely to be charged as adults; less likely to receive non-adjudication options such as diversionary programs and informal adjustment; less likely to receive probation; more likely to receive placement, and spend more time in placement once there.

In 2018, Black youth comprised 14 percent of the youth population in Pennsylvania but comprised 38 percent of the written allegations, 62 percent of pre-adjudication detention admissions, and 47 percent of placement decisions.

Comparatively, white youth comprised 70 percent of the youth population, but only comprised 45 percent of the written allegations, 20 percent of pre-adjudication detention admissions, and 28 percent of placement dispositions.

Wolf, lawmakers announce new panel to study juvenile justice system

There is a clear pathway toward transformational change to Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system. The Task Force repeatedly heard from youth with lived experience in the juvenile justice system who added the stories behind that data.

Specifically, youth leaders from the Care, Not Control Coalition comprised of Pennsylvania/national-based juvenile justice advocates shared policy demands containing protections that youth in the juvenile justice system need.

After a grounding in the realities of Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, the Task Force broke into subgroups to develop recommendations to reform all aspects of the system.

The Task Force recommendations contain several key reforms including limiting the situations for which youth can be sent to out-of-home placement, increasing the use of diversion programs, decreasing the use of pre-adjudication detention, raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction, and eliminating the ability for youth to be sentenced directly in adult court.

However, those recommendations are significantly weakened by exceptions that remove large sections of youth from the protections these recommendations afford. For instance, the recommendation limiting placement provides that youth cannot be sent to placement for technical probation violations, but lists four exceptions when this practice is permissible. These exceptions have no grounding in research or data and undermine the recommendation as a whole.

Although the final recommendations fall short of true transformation, they are a vast improvement over the current state of the law and are a step toward the transformational change for which our youth have called.

We appreciate task force members’ work to finalize these urgent recommendations. The Task Force may have ended, but there is more work to be done as these reforms need to be introduced as legislation and go through the legislative process.

The stage is now set to reform Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, and we call on the Legislature to enact all of the protections in the Final Report. By enacting these protections, Pennsylvania will join states such as Kansas and Utah that have gone through a similar task force process with Pew and enacted powerful reforms that have protected youth and saved money for the state.

As Bryanna Hood, a Youth Advocate from Juvenile Law Center’s Juveniles for Justice program, stated in testimony during a Dec. 16, 2020 town hall: “Hopefully one day in the future youth will have better alternatives and would never have to face trauma and abuse in these facilities ever again.”

Malik Pickett is a staff attorney for Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. 

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