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The most serious offense for at least 66% of youth entering Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system is either a misdemeanor or a contempt charge for failing to pay a fine.

Is Change Coming to Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice System?

By Anne Teigen | June 23, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

Pennsylvania is the latest state to take steps to improve its juvenile justice system. A year of work by a bipartisan task force—established by legislators joining forces with the governor and chief justice—has resulted in 35 recommendations for change.

“We worked together to conduct an inclusive, inter-branch look at our system based in our own data and on the voices of stakeholders,” task force co-chair Sen. Lisa Baker (R) said. “Our findings show we have an urgent opportunity to reinvest in communities across Pennsylvania. No matter where young people live, our system should be fair, aligned with what works best, and equipped with the tools to strengthen families and reduce recidivism.”

Besides Baker, the task force co-chairs included Sen. Jay Costa (D) and Reps. Tarah Toohil (R) and Mike Zabel (D).

“I look forward to seeing the report, but more importantly, seeing the report put into action, because we know that we are taking strides to improve the lives of young people and Pennsylvanians for generations to come,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R) said at a news conference.

The task force embarked on a yearlong assessment of Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, an effort that stemmed from a need for data-driven policy to ensure public safety, accountability, and a viable way to improve outcomes for youth, families and communities. The group conducted 28 roundtables with over 400 participants and stakeholders from across the commonwealth. Over the course of the assessment, the task force examined statewide juvenile justice data, which revealed:

  • No statewide criteria exist in statute or court rules that guide responses to youth behavior by offense, risk or prior history. Youths may be removed from their homes for any delinquent act or violation.
  • The most serious offense for at least 66% of youth entering the juvenile justice system is either a misdemeanor or a contempt charge from a court for failing to pay a fine.
  • Although research indicates that out-of-home placements do not produce better outcomes for many young people, and can be counterproductive to reducing recidivism, about 60% of adjudicated young people sent to residential placement are removed from their homes for misdemeanor offenses.
  • 73% of young people removed from their homes for delinquency are removed on their first offense.
  • 80% of Pennsylvania’s nearly $350 million in spending on delinquency services is focused on out-of-home placement.
  • The average housing cost per youth per year is $192,720 for state-run residential facilities and $107,468 for privately run facilities.
  • Young people who are removed from their homes spend an average of three years under court supervision.
  • The overall length of a Black boy’s case from start to finish averages 42 months.

Recommendations

In response to this data, the task force developed 35 policy recommendations, some of which include:

  • Raising the age of minimum prosecution from age 10 to 13.
  • Eliminating prosecution of young people for nonpayment of municipal tickets.
  • Expanding opportunities for diversion by creating statewide standards, including school-based diversions.
  • Consistently diverting young people with low-level cases to community-based interventions in lieu of formal delinquency proceedings.
  • Reducing and preventing out-of-home placement for lower-level offenses and reserving such a response only for young people who pose a serious threat to community safety.
  • Shifting state fiscal resources toward community-based interventions.
  • Improving conditions of confinement, educational standards and oversight in facilities.
  • Standardizing and streamlining the expungement process statewide, thus reducing lifetime consequences of justice system contact.

If all 35 recommendations were enacted, the task force estimates the population of incarcerated young people in Pennsylvania would drop 39% by 2026. This decrease would avert over $81 million in state costs that the task force recommends be reinvested into community-based alternatives.

Anne Teigen tracks criminal justice issues for NCSL.

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