Pa. Senate panel holds hearing on juvenile justice reform bills, but advocates demand more

Although four juvenile justice reform bills are poised to move forward in the Pennsylvania Senate, it would appear that the heaviest push is yet to come.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Monday on what were described as reform measures that are the subject of broad agreement among lawmakers, following last year’s report from the task force on Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice.

But on several occasions, the discussion has also shifted to the issue of minors being tried and imprisoned as adults due to Pennsylvania’s “direct file” provisions and lack of alternative placements for minors – an issue whose possible solutions do not have quite the same level of consensus.

The four bills presented “are a good start, not the full range of potential reforms” and “represent what we believe we can achieve the necessary consensus for action,” said Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, reading a statement prepared by the committee chair, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, who was out with the flu.

After Monday’s hearing, criminal justice reform advocates rallied on the steps of the Capitol to demand measures that would go beyond the scope of the bills under consideration. This would include restricting or eliminating so-called “direct file” or “statutory exclusion” laws, which give district attorneys the legal authority to prosecute minors in adult court from the outset for certain offenses.

Advocates of the Care, Not Control campaign rally in support of juvenile justice reform in Harrisburg on May 23, 2022.

“I strongly recommend that a task force be convened” to address direct file reform, Jim Anderson told the committee during Monday’s hearing. Anderson is the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission.

Trying to reduce the number of juvenile cases being prosecuted as adults “is one of, if not the most important, recommendations that came out of the task force,” Anderson said, referring to last year’s report of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force. .

When Martin asked if such a special committee on the issue of direct records would be appropriate, most panelists agreed – although it was suggested that district attorneys would be less enthusiastic about major changes given that the configuration present situation imposes more burden on the defence.

“I think we support the current system, although I would say again that if we want to take a fresh look at this, like everything we do, by all means [the Pennsylvania District Attorneys’ Association] I would love to be a part of it,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said.

The direct file issue features prominently in the task force’s report, which includes 35 separate recommendations – some of them unanimously approved and others more controversial.

The four bills considered by the Senate judiciary are the simplest:

  • Senate Bill 1226 would standardize a shorter time frame for expunging juvenile cases.
  • SB 1227 would explicitly include juvenile justice in the language of Pennsylvania Department of Social Services funding goals.
  • SB 1228 would require these program internships to be reviewed at three months, rather than six, showing that longer internships are often unnecessary.
  • SB 1229 would change the state reimbursement schedule to cover half of the counties’ costs for public defenders and other court costs for juvenile cases.

The four bills “are an important first step,” said Christopher Welsh, Delaware County public defender and executive committee member of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania.

Providing public funding for juvenile defense and court costs is particularly relevant, Welsh said, given that Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that does not fund public defenders, leaving their funding to the counties.

Even still, Welsh said, “future legislation will be needed to achieve all that the juvenile justice recommendations provide for,” particularly with respect to the issue of direct deposit.

Prior to 1995, prosecutors were only allowed to prosecute minors in adult court for homicide. But the Direct Record Act was later expanded to allow adult charges to be brought against minors for a wider range of offences, provided the accused was 15 or older.

Although the task force report found that the number of minors prosecuted as adults in Pennsylvania has declined over the past decade, this is due almost entirely to Philadelphia and Allegheny counties. In the other 65 counties taken collectively, such prosecutions rose from 246 in 2009 to 292 in 2019.

As Welsh and other speakers pointed out on Monday, the task force report found that about 60% of direct file cases end up being sent to juvenile court, or dismissed or withdrawn entirely.

But while such a case goes to trial, juvenile offenders may find themselves held in adult prisons, an often traumatic experience that is “the system itself creates a greater risk to public safety” rather than the make it worse, Welsh said.

Speakers at Monday’s rally shared their experiences on this. My Le, a youth leader with the Care, Not Control campaign – a coalition of advocacy groups campaigning for juvenile justice reform – said she spent eight months in an adult prison when she was 17 years after adult charges were filed against her.

“It doesn’t help us take responsibility for everything we’ve done,” she said of those incarcerations. Being tried as an adult was used as leverage by the prosecutor to get him to plead, Le said. She eventually accepted a plea deal and spent an additional 12 months in a juvenile program.

Said Andre Simms, another of Care’s Not Control advocates: ‘We’re not saying no one can ever be tried as an adult, we’re saying start in family court. If you want to charge someone as an adult, shift the onus to the prosecutor” to prove that the case should be transferred from family court to adult court.

Statistical evidence indicates that there are good reasons to limit the use of adult justice against juveniles, with studies showing increased recidivism rates among juveniles incarcerated in adult facilities compared to similar offenders who were in the juvenile system.

One obstacle to limiting direct application fees, however, is that the number of beds in juvenile detention centers and other residential programs for juveniles has declined in recent years as home and community services have replaced them. . Many centers have also suffered from poor management and atrophied public funding.

“If we are going to take legislative action to repeal some or most of the so-called direct file offenses, we have to recognize that these people, these young people who are now in county jails, are going to have to be in juvenile custody. centers,” Anderson said.

Allegheny County, senators heard Monday, is already incapable of meeting that challenge. The county’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center closed last year after the state revoked its license for repeated safety and driving violations.

Despite a change in federal law that requires minors to be held in adult facilities only when “in the interests of justice,” the county has struggled to achieve this due to the loss of detention capacity for minors, said Russel Carlino, chief probation officer for Allegheny County.

“Right now we don’t have enough detention beds to accommodate these interests of justice cases,” Carlino said. “In Allegheny County right now, we have about 25 kids who are in the county jail who would otherwise be in custody, but we just don’t have the beds available.”

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