Pa. lawmakers unveil bipartisan plans for juvenile justice system reform, standardize practices

The proposal aims to limit detention and standardize placement practices with recommendations from the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force

By: - March 14, 2022 3:48 pm

 (*This story was updated at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 3/15/22, to name Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, as a co-prime sponsor.)

Almost one year after a statewide panel released a final report on Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers have announced plans to improve outcomes for youth and communities.

The Juvenile Justice Policy Act, announced Monday in a memo from Sens. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, and Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, aims to limit detention and standardize placement practices with recommendations from the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, and leaders in the Republican-controlled General Assembly established the task force in 2019 to review laws and policies, research best practices, and collect public input on the system. 

The 30-member body, which includes lawmakers, judges, and criminal justice advocates, released an evidence-based report in June 2021, with 35 recommendations for improvements during the 2021-22 legislative session.

According to the report’s findings, most young people enter the juvenile justice system for low-level behavior. The majority aren’t on a path toward adult crime and haven’t committed a felony. But increased involvement with the system can increase their chances of reoffending, the task force said.

“This legislation will reduce victimization and promote community safety by ensuring that young people who are struggling in our communities receive the right level of intervention at the right time, no matter where they live,” Bartolotta and Williams wrote in the memo seeking their Senate colleagues’ support for their proposal.

The task force found that diversion, an alternative way to hold youth accountable without confinement, is underutilized despite its success. Most written allegations — the document submitted to the juvenile probation office by law enforcement, and sometimes, by a private citizen — do not lead to diversion, even for young people who are low-risk for committing another offense and those entering the system for the first time on a misdemeanor.

Bartolotta and Williams’s forthcoming legislation seeks to expand and standardize diversion practices, which can include school-based practices.

Their bill also proposes limiting admission to juvenile detention facilities to kids older than 14 and those who have committed a “more serious offense.”

Pennsylvania has no existing guidelines for responding to youth behavior — meaning that someone can be removed from their home for any delinquent act or violation, according to the task force. 

In the final report, the task force recommended consistent policies to divert those with low-level cases to community-based interventions instead of formal court proceedings. The task force suggested expanding alternatives to arrest, standardizing diversion, and prohibiting written allegations for failing to pay a fine in magisterial district court.

The lawmakers said they plan to draft language that reserves out-of-home placement for the most serious cases. On average, out-of-home placement costs as much as $192,720 per youth each year, nearly 50 times the cost per participant of high-quality family therapy, according to the report.

“Focusing costly out-of-home placement on our most serious cases will reduce unnecessary spending and free up fiscal resources for reinvestment into interventions within the community, which enhance public safety and put these young people back on track,” Bartolotta and Williams wrote. “More cost-effective options include family therapy, outpatient substance use, and other programs that work with kids in their communities.” 

They also have plans to add parameters for restitution in juvenile cases and ensure that youth receive at least minimum wage for work while in placement.

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