Want to Build Safer Communities? – Feb 16, 2024



While it is incredibly welcome news that gun deaths in Philadelphia decreased in 2023 from the peaks of the COVID-19 years, there is so much work that needs to be done to prevent people — especially our young people — from going down the path that leads to violence.

Mayor Cherelle L. Parker’s selection of Kevin Bethel as police commissioner is a good one because — as the former chief of school safety — he has the right mindset and experience to invest in our children. Commissioner Bethel recognizes that the brain isn’t fully developed until a person’s mid-20s, which means young people make reckless decisions at 16, 17, and 18 years old that they would likely never make in adulthood. When those reckless decisions are nonviolent offenses, it is undeniably better to give children and teens the structure to learn from and make amends for their poor choices, not lock them up.

We have hope that Bethel understands this. He successfully led an expansion of the Philadelphia Police Department’s school-based diversion program, which responds to low-level misbehavior — like marijuana possession or bringing scissors to school — by linking kids to supportive services, instead of arresting them. These alternatives include academic support and mentoring to identify reasons why kids may be acting out. Since 2013, arrests in Philadelphia public schools have gone down by over 90%. (Bethel’s diversion program began in the 2014-15 academic year.) Youth in the program were also less likely to be suspended or arrested within five years after they went through the program than those students who were arrested at school.

We need to bring this same approach of diversion over arrest to the community.

Many Philadelphians understandably worry about youth violence, but we must resist the knee-jerk mentality of “lock them up and throw away the key.” Because here’s the thing: Incarcerating teens does not make our city safer. On the contrary, it makes our city less safe by putting young people on the path toward future bad decisions. Kids who are incarcerated have higher high school dropout rates, lower income as adults, and worse physical and mental health. They’re also more likely to be rearrested and sent back to jail.

Imagine you’re 14 years old and you made a stupid, impulsive decision that got you arrested. You now find yourself locked in a cell with six strangers. You would be confused and scared, and rightly so, since you’re now entangled in a system that offers punishment instead of healing and hope for your future. This is the reality for the children detained at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center.

And yet, too many people assume that the only solution to stop youth crime is to lock children up long term.

While there are times when detaining teenagers is warranted, it cannot be the first and only response if we really want to end violence, because it doesn’t address the reasons so many kids are committing crimes in the first place.

Philadelphia needs to invest in a full array of services, including prevention and community-based services, to stop the cycle of arrest and incarceration. And we have the funds to do it: A recent economic analysis of the Philadelphia juvenile justice system showed an estimated $17 million in unspent funds each year — money that could be invested in evidence-based solutions that actually reduce crime by helping young people understand how to make better choices and make amends with those they’ve harmed.

We can expand the use of community-based diversion programs, like Bethel’s school-based program, that foster accountability outside the formal juvenile legal system. Across the commonwealth, 80% of young people who receive diversion complete all of the terms successfully, and their case is closed. In other words: It works.

For those kids who do end up in the system, we need to do whatever it takes to serve them in their homes, reserving incarceration for only the most serious of situations where a young person is a risk of harm to others.

Currently, Pennsylvania youth who are arrested spend an average of a year and a half in facilities, away from their homes and school. In addition, out-of-home placement can cost taxpayers up to $200,000 per year per child. Instead of relying on something expensive that doesn’t work, we should invest public funds in community-based programs that work to reduce recidivism.

If we’re serious about preventing crime and supporting our youngest residents, we need Mayor Parker and her administration to prioritize solutions that both reduce crime and put kids on the path to becoming successful adults.

Hiring Bethel is a step in that direction. Expanding diversion programs and community-based responses to youth crime will help move us the rest of the way there.

(This piece, authored by Donna Cooper and Anton Moore of Unity in the Community ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

Voice your support to U.S. Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman who are pushing for a vote on the federal Child Tax Credit that would lift thousands of PA kids out of poverty. Take action here.

“This is a terrible bill…I wish I could vote no like 30 times against it.”

– State Rep. Mike Jones’ (R-York) fierce opposition to a much-needed paid family leave bill in PA

Be at the decision-making table for kids and hold elected officials accountable for their promises to children, teens, and families!

Children First’s Parents Empowered for Change program is accepting applications for two powerful programs that will help you take your ideas for change and turn them into action.

Learn more and apply here.

“I would do it again. It’s a commitment of
joy. It’s a commitment of pain. I have no
Sheila Johnson, a Parents Empowered for
alumni, on raising her three
Thirty percent of Philadelphia
grandparents are caregivers for their