|Giving Troubled Youth a New Lease on Life
We’ve got news! Red states are some of the biggest leaders in addressing the juvenile justice blues. The data is clear that locking children up is the surest pathway to them entering the criminal justice system for a lifetime.
Surprisingly fewer youth are being locked up in deeply conservative states. Places like Kansas changed their laws in response to that data and now 63% fewer youth are being sent to jail. South Dakota implemented similar reforms with such sweeping impact they could close a large state-run juvenile detention facility. And, more impressively, these states are investing in youth diversion and rehabilitation programs. To be sure, life isn’t perfect for youth who break the law in those states, but kids are far better off there than in Pennsylvania.
That’s the case despite the fact that kids under 19 commit a small portion of violent crimes in the Commonwealth. Yet, the Pennsylvania norm is still to lock ’em up. Case in point, seven out of ten of the kids in juvenile detention are there for a first offense, rates higher than the national averages and disproportionately boys of color.
Instead of sending youth to jail – which leads to high school dropouts, mental and physical health problems, and higher rates of rearrest and reincarceration – more states are turning toward restorative programs that give young offenders the chance to make amends, learn from their mistakes, and develop skills to make better choices in the future.
The positive impact of the juvenile justice reforms in the heartland is contributing to welcome momentum to reform juvenile justice in the Keystone State. Republican champions for these reforms spoke out earlier this month.
“We will all benefit if we give kids who are struggling the right intervention at the right time,” said state Sen. Camera Bartolotta and Rep. Natalie Mihalek, Republican members of the new bipartisan, joint House/Senate Youth Safety Caucus. The Caucus was formed to “create policies that expand diversion, eliminate fines and fees, limit out-of-home placement and detention, strengthen educational outcomes and reduce adult prosecution of Pennsylvania’s children.”
It’s one thing to say we need to change and it’s another to change the laws so change takes hold. Hopeful signs of progress on the hard work of putting the reforms in to law are also evident in PA Senate where there is bipartisan support for bills that would:
- Add diversion-oriented juvenile justice to the PA Department of Human Services funding priorities in SB 167.
- Ensure youth receive good legal representative by setting a state reimbursement rate for counties to maintain, enhance or improve the quantity or quality of legal services provided to juveniles in SB 168.
- Get youth out of detention faster by requiring case review for youth in detention every three months instead of six in SB 169.
- Improve the record expungement processes so that youth can clear their record and get a fresh start on life in SB 170.
The faster we build support and pass these initial reforms, the sooner we can get to work on replicating the bigger strategies already adopted by legislators and governors in deeply red states who are making their communities are safer, their youth better off, and removing the burden on taxpayers.
Be on the lookout for our Take Action Tuesday alerts related to these important bills. Please be a voice for children and teens who deserve the chance to make things right– and make things better – in their communities.