Reforming the juvenile justice system is personal for Philadelphia native Jon Kelly.
“I cycled through several youth detention centers,” he said. “Those places often made kids more bitter and hardened at heart, including me.” While Jon went on to commit crimes as an adult, he had a turnaround – and credits employers and local churches for his recovery, not an institution. Jon believes the community-based mentoring and accountability he experienced are key to helping today’s youth avoid adult crime.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system relies on out-of-home placements in institutions rather than community-based programs. This undercuts the stability of families and communities by removing kids from homes.
In a 2021 report, the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force found about two-thirds of kids enter the justice system for relatively minor offenses like low-level misdemeanors and unpaid fines. These kids aren’t on a path toward adult crime, but current practices expose them to a system that increases their likelihood of reoffending.
Sending youths to an out-of-home placement, typically an institution with other juveniles, makes them more likely to be rearrested, incarcerated, and violent than similarly situated youth who receive community-based diversions.
But there is an alternative. Community-based diversion programs can hold youths accountable for their behavior without trapping them in the justice system.
These programs assign youth service in the community instead of court-supervised probation or out-of-home placements. Services can include intensive and customized therapy, community service, outpatient substance abuse services, youth courts, youth aid panels, victim-offender mediation, or other requirements that do not require leaving family or community.
The Task Force’s data shows community-based diversion programs have a record of success – 80% of youths that participate complete the programs without further escalation in their cases.
Yet too many low-level offending youths don’t receive this opportunity. Pennsylvania dedicates about 80% of its taxpayer spending for juvenile justice services to largely ineffective out-of-home placement.
What’s more, a youth’s assignment to a diversion program versus an out-of-home placement is often a high-stakes game of chance.
That’s because there is no definitive standard for when courts may remove minors from their homes. Whether a minor is sent to an institution or diverted to intensive programming largely depends on where they happen to live. In some counties, like Allegheny, Carbon, Susquehanna, and York, the courts divert nearly all first-time cases. In others, like Armstrong, Delaware, and Somerset, fewer than a third of kids receive any diversion.
Outcomes based on geographical location are not fair or equitable.
There’s a better way to serve our kids. State lawmakers should enact Senate Bill 1241, pending legislation promoting diversion for youths before the more drastic and costly removal away from their families and communities.
SB 1241, sponsored by Sens. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican, and Tony Williams, a Democrat, would strengthen families and boost community safety by ensuring that our struggling youths receive the right level of intervention at the right time, no matter where they live.
Local communities can also support second chances for youth. Montgomery County’s Youth Aid Panel, for example, has helped more than 10,000 kids – ages 10 to 17 – avoid criminal records. Youths in the program work with a panel of local, trained volunteers and learn to take responsibility for their actions. The panel assigns each youth resolutions, which are any combination of education assignments, restitution, or community service projects with a timeline for completion.
It’s time to build upon these local successes and reserve costly out-of-home placements for only the most serious cases. This allows us to redirect resources to community interventions with a much better track record for improving public safety and getting young people back on track.
Without reform, our juvenile justice system will continue to be a revolving door for young people like Jon who live in ZIP codes where they are more likely to get caught up in a life of crime.
SB 1241 and other pending juvenile justice reform measures are critical to creating a just system that strengthens – not divides – families and communities.
Elizabeth Stelle is the Director of Policy Analysis of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.