State Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, attends the Senate Education Committee Hearing held at the Pennsylvania Capitol on May 24, 2022 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
Two Pennsylvania lawmakers on Wednesday announced plans for a bill creating a pilot program to develop school-based youth court programs to improve restorative justice initiatives and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
Legislation expected from Sens. Timothy Kearney, D-Delaware, and John Kane, D-Chester, implements recommendations in a 2019 Joint State Government Commission report. The commission, directed to examine the possible benefits of the program, found that youth courts could address disciplinary problems and divert juvenile offenders from further violations through restorative justice.
An alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system and school disciplinary proceedings, youth courts are diversion programs where young people sentence their peers for minor crimes, offenses, or violations.
“Parents, school administrators, and educators have been raising concerns about the net effects of punitive student disciplinary policies that emphasize suspension, expulsion, and referrals [to] law enforcement,” the lawmakers wrote in a memo seeking legislative support. “Together, these policies and practices increase the likelihood that wayward youth will end up in the criminal justice system and reduce the chances that they will finish their education and become productive members of society.”
The initiatives are“ known to improve student-teacher relationships and school climate and provide additional educational benefits for participating students, including civic engagement, public speaking, conflict-resolution, and leadership skills,” Kearney and Kane wrote.
Their proposal would establish a five-year pilot program for school-based youth courts and establish a Youth Court Resource Center to help schools develop the program and implement other restorative justice measures.
“The pilot program will include annual grants to school entities — including public middle and high schools, public charter schools, school districts, or intermediate units — to begin youth courts, develop partnerships to aid youth courts, or evaluate program outcomes,” they wrote. “The pilot program will provide critical data to measure the efficacy of youth courts as a trauma-informed approach to improve disciplinary and educational outcomes for participating students.”
The National Association of Youth Courts identified the most common offenses addressed by youth courts as theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, alcohol, assault, possession of marijuana, tobacco, curfew violations, and school disciplinary matters.
The U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that there are at least 1,000 youth courts in the United States.
The Senate directed the Joint State Government Commission to establish an advisory committee comprised of public educators, law enforcement, and youth court experts to study the program and its effectiveness as a reformative juvenile justice tool.
The report consisted of eight recommendations, including encouraging a continuum of youth court programs, possible structures, guidance from the state Department of Education on implementation, continued research and reporting to assess productivity, and new funding to support the initiative.
In Pennsylvania, school-based student youth courts are the least common youth court programs, according to the 2019 report, which found that 11 school districts and two charter schools used the initiative for school discipline matters. Most Pennsylvania youth courts are juvenile justice-based programs. They operate at the county level and are supervised and supported by the county juvenile probation officer.
Other types of programs include community justice panels, truancy courts, and problem-solving youth courts.
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