Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system needs a complete overhaul to address pervasive violence and racial disparities, according to the final report of a politically powerful, bipartisan task force.
The report seems likely to drive efforts to change the juvenile justice system high up on the political agenda because the 31-member task force was established by Gov. Tom Wolf, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, and includes academic and other leaders in the field from around the state.
The task force was established in late 2019 following news investigations by the Philadelphia Inquirer that uncovered routine abuse and threats made by boys at the Glen Mills Schools, a juvenile justice facility in Delaware County. The state, which has jurisdiction over Glen Mills and similar institutions, did not detect and stop abuses that persisted for decades.
“Over the past 17 months, the task force has worked diligently to create these policy recommendations that will expand where our juvenile justice system has succeeded and boldly transform the areas where we face challenges,” Democrat Wolf said in a statement. “We need to do better by our youth and communities, and that’s why this important work remains a top priority for all of us.”
The task force documented widespread geographic and racial disparities in how youth offenders are treated. Black youth, for example, are more likely than white youths to be removed from their homes and prosecuted in adult court. While Black kids comprise 62% of the youths detained before adjudication and 47% of those sent to a residential facility, the report said.
The task force recommended a range of administrative, statutory and budgetary changes. These include a major expansion of community-based services as an alternative to incarceration. Detention and out-of-home residential placement should only be used for youth who pose a “serious risk” to public safety, it said.
In addition, lawmakers should raise the minimum age at which young people can be tried as adults for certain serious offenses from 14 to 16, the report said, and a 1995 law that automatically requires adult prosecution in serious cases should be wiped off the books. Those decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, the report said.
The task force also would like to see fines, court costs and fees eliminated because they simply keep kids locked up and exposed to the system if they and their families cannot pay. Other states have been adopting similar changes in recent years.