Pa. lawmakers push for juvenile justice reform. But will it pass both chambers?

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More than two years ago, the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force delivered a final report and offered recommendations to overhaul the state’s embattled youth justice system.

Now those proposed reforms are finally getting a chance in Harrisburg.

The Youth Safety Caucus recently held a webinar, updating the media on legislative movement.

Erika Parks, a policy officer for Pew Charitable Trusts, said House Bill 1381 made it through the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee in September, and could see a vote on the floor soon.

Sponsored by state Rep. Dan Miller (D-Allegheny), HB1381 makes several significant changes to the state’s youth justice system, including ending a direct file to adult court, eliminating almost all court fees and fines, prohibiting the use of solitary confinement on children, prioritizing diversion programs, and requiring consultation with an attorney before a child waives their rights.

“There is the potential for moving some of these solutions forward and making a real difference for kids,” Parks said.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First, a child advocacy nonprofit, has been at the forefront opposing the state’s controversial youth detention facilities  — such as the Glen Mills Schools and its successor Clock Tower Schools.

“They’re not the full suite of bills that we need to move to a really reasonably effective and state-of-the-art juvenile justice system where we make sure that children never become adult offenders, but they begin to move us in that right direction,” Cooper said.

She said the bills that are now being considered in the General Assembly are encouraging and, if passed, would support youth that encounter the juvenile justice system.

Cooper said what would make communities safer and make officials less dependent on detention facilities would be “getting upstream” and addressing the needs and root causes of children who show early signs of acting out.

The school-to-prison pipeline starts even earlier than that, she said.

“In addition, a lot of work has happened around the country to really show that when kids have ready access to really good mental health services that are responsive to who they are culturally — their class, their race, their experience, their trauma — that you can dramatically reduce the number of kids whoever end up touching the criminal justice system,” Cooper said.

Chris Welsh, director of the Delaware County Office of the Public Defender, knows very well what is at stake.

“We need more emphasis on diversion. We need more emphasis on supporting community-based programs,” Welsh said. “We need more emphasis on alternatives to detention and we need more emphasis on taking a real close look at what is happening in detention facilities when a judge makes a determination that the kid does need to be detained.”

His office helped blow the whistle on abuse allegations at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in 2021.

He said stakeholders from across the system are generally in agreement that having more community-based resources to help children succeed rather than detention is the right path forward.

“There’s broad consensus of that as a goal, but it sort of when you get into the particulars of what that means and how you get there that there’s some there’s some disagreements,” Welsh said.

He’s optimistic that an iteration of reform bills will eventually make it through the legislature.

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