Opinion

It’s time for Pennsylvania to tackle youth incarceration.

Scanlon writes that children should be treated as such when it comes to incarceration.

Scanlon writes that children should be treated as such when it comes to incarceration. Alexander Raths | Shutterstock

America’s young people are deserving of our protection — regardless of their circumstances. For youth who run afoul of our criminal justice system, that is often not the case. 

I spent decades volunteering as a child advocate before running for Congress, representing children in dependency proceedings to ensure they had access to justice and were protected from abuse. I also worked with lawyers representing children in the delinquency system and youth who had been tried and convicted as adults.

The challenges facing incarcerated youth are overwhelming. Separated from the adults in their life, including parents and legal guardians, their very youth and developmental status makes incarcerated youth both more likely to suffer abuse and less likely to be able to protect themselves or assert their rights. Too often, young people in detention facilities are subject to physical and sexual violence, solitary confinement, pepper spray, or harmful restraints, and they are particularly susceptible to long-term effects from such trauma.

In 2019, the Glen Mills youth detention center in my district was forced to close following revelations about appalling abuse inflicted on its young residents. Children suffered broken bones, threats of retaliation, and sustained physical assaults — all at the hands of staff members. The heartbreaking accounts that came out of Glen Mills were not isolated incidents, they are the story of youth incarceration across Pennsylvania.

This past March, the courts ordered children to be removed from the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima, just a few miles from Glen Mills, after allegations of sickening abuse were made public. Reported abuses included ignoring a suicide attempt, forcing a child to drink from a toilet, and restraining a pregnant teen in a manner meant to induce miscarriage. 

At least some of this abuse has occurred due to the dehumanization of Black and brown young people who are disproportionately brought into Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. In Pennsylvania, Black youth are seven times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated, even as rates of youth incarceration are declining across the nation. Young people of all backgrounds and races engage in risky behavior at the same rates, but Black and brown youth are more frequently removed from their families and locked in facilities as the first response.

Although they are more likely to be subject to abuse, young people are also less likely to report it because of their youth and systemic barriers. They face overwhelming obstacles when navigating the complex legal systems necessary to raise allegations of abuse — a system that even most adults struggle to understand.

To address these systemic barriers, I drafted and secured bipartisan support for the Justice for Juveniles Act, which would make it easier for youth to seek relief in court. In June, the House passed my bill with overwhelming support, bringing us one step closer to protecting youth in correctional facilities.

But much more work needs to be done to prevent the opportunity for such abuse. We can end or dramatically reduce youth incarceration, but we need leaders in Pennsylvania to do their part. 

Data and lived experience show us that punitive models of punishment do not work — restorative justice and community-based programs continuously yield better results for young people and their communities. And we have the resources to do better if we choose to do so. The money we spend to educate a child in the community ($16,000 on average) pales beside the $250,000 Pennsylvania spends to incarcerate a child for a year.

We are at a critical moment. I urge state and local decision-makers to move with urgency to enact a healthier response when youth run afoul of the law. It is time we get back to treating children as children and make investments in alternatives to juvenile incarceration, which will allow them to build better futures in our communities.

The bipartisan Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force laid out a comprehensive set of recommendations earlier this summer that could begin moving our commonwealth in the right direction. The task force recommendations address the laws used to prosecute youth, diversion programs, oversight and accountability of existing detention facilities, reinvestment in evidence-based alternative interventions, and more.

If implemented, these recommendations would protect public safety, increase accountability, achieve savings for reinvestment, and improve outcomes for our young people. According to the task force’s report, rather than paying for an expensive school-to-prison pipeline, we could safely reduce the population of young people in out-of-home facilities by 39 percent by 2026 and free up nearly $81 million for reinvestment. This is a win-win for the people of Pennsylvania, but especially for those youths with brighter futures to show for it.

With support from both sides of the political aisle, and across all three branches of the Pennsylvania government, this is an issue where we can find common ground and do something positive for our young people. 

Ending youth incarceration in Pennsylvania is imperative to the future of our children and our broader community. When youth get in trouble, they need a system that invests in their future instead of ending it.

U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon represents Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. She has dedicated her career to serving the most vulnerable — first as a lawyer and now in Congress, where she serves on the House Judiciary Committee, House Committee on Rules, and Committee on House Administration, and chairs the House Caucuses on Access to Legal Aid and Youth Mentoring.

  

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