GUEST EDITORIAL: It’s time to rethink juvenile justice in Pa.

Erie Times-News/GoErie (AP)
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After a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation exposed decades of abuse and coverup at the venerable Glen Mills Schools, the nation’s oldest boys’ reform school, Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019 convened a bipartisan task force to conduct a sweeping examination of the state’s juvenile justice system.

The review — meant to find ways to increase safety and accountability and save money — came not just against the backdrop of the Glen Mills expose and other high profile cases of abuse involving residential treatment facilities. It also emerged amid ongoing bipartisan efforts to reform criminal justice in Pennsylvania.

Following a 16-month review, the task force announced its findings on June 22.

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It recommended, as expected, better oversight of detention facilities. More importantly, it said the state needs to stop removing so many young people from their homes and sending them to institutions in the first place.

The findings were released amid a week of furious activity in Harrisburg where headlines about voting reform and budget negotiations dominated. But the report should not get lost in the din.

The task force recommendations do not look to upset the worthy core aims of Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system — community protection paired with accountability and competency development for offenders using the least restrictive measures possible.

But transformation, not tweaks, are sought to achieve those ends and for good reason: The data-driven analysis found in practice a racially and geographically disparate system that too often funnels youth into the justice system and residential placement rather diverting them prior to court involvement or rehabilitating them with more effective community-based services. It is an expensive, counterproductive dynamic that can increase a youth’s likelihood of reoffending.

The task force found most of those who wind up in the system “have little or no prior history of delinquency, have not committed a felony or a person offense, and do not score as high risk to reoffend” even though it is known that overinvolvement in the system can actually increase the likelihood of reoffending. Diversion to community-based programs, which are generally more effective, is underutilized, even for people who are at low risk to reoffend and who are entering the juvenile justice system for the first time on misdemeanors, it said.

Youth with low level offenses end up on probation and in residential placement, the task force found. And those who wind up in placement on average cycle through six facilities, including detention and shelter, and stay out of their homes for 16 months total. As one young person told the panel, “Once you are in the system, you are stuck in the system.”

And taxpayers, take note: Those placements at state-run facilities cost an average of $192,720 a year, per youth, nearly 50 times the cost of family therapy, which has “repeatedly been found to reduce the likelihood of reoffending and improve psychological outlook,” the task force said.

Most disturbing was data that showed Black youth were treated differently, even for the same offenses. The research found: Black youth make up 14% of the statewide youth population and 38% of written allegations coming into the system, but represent 62% of youth held in detention while the case is pending, 47% of youth sent to residential placement, 62% of youth charged as adults due to statutory requirements, and 55% of youth charged in adult court at the discretion of a juvenile court judge.

The task force made 35 recommendations to improve outcomes. Among them: Focus the use of residential placement on those who pose a danger to community safety. Look to community-based help for low-level offenders before involving them in the court system. Raise the age of those eligible to be charged as adults for serious crimes and repeal the law that calls for youth to be charged as adults automatically for some violent offenses.

If implemented, these changes would cut by 39% the number of youth in residential facilities and save an estimated $81 million, which, the task force said, could be reinvested in nonresidential programs, increased oversight and restitution funds for victims.

There’s both a moral and practical case to be made for ensuring the state’s juvenile justice system operates effectively, fairly and efficiently. We don’t need another report of appalling institutional abuse or damning statistic about race and criminal justice to tell us we must do better by our greatest resource — our children. This data-driven report, drawn up by experts with input from youth, tells us how to get started. Lawmakers should act.

— From Erie Times-News/GoErie.