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'Serious Racial Disparities' In Pennsylvania Juvenile Court

FILE - This Feb. 6, 2009 file photo shows the privately owned PA Child Care youth detention center in Pittston, Pa.
Matt Rourke
FILE - This Feb. 6, 2009 file photo shows the privately owned PA Child Care youth detention center in Pittston, Pa.

Pennsylvania locks up far too many first-time and low-level youth offenders, with Black youth in particular disproportionately yanked from their homes and prosecuted as adults, according to a task force that made recommendations to reform the state’s juvenile justice system.

“Serious racial disparities pervade Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system,” the bipartisan task force said in its report, adding that changes are urgently needed to make the state’s juvenile justice system more fair and more effective.

A substantial percentage of young people who commit a minor crime, and are considered at low risk of reoffending, are nevertheless removed from home and placed in a residential facility, the group found in its 16-month review. The practice is widespread despite research showing that out-of-home placement is “generally not effective at reducing recidivism for most youth — and can instead be counterproductive," the report said.

Policymakers found widespread geographic and racial disparities in how youth offenders are treated, with Black youths more likely than white youths to be removed from home and prosecuted in adult court. Black youths represent 38% of cases in juvenile court, but 62% of the youths detained before adjudication and 47% sent to a residential facility, the report said. The use of detention varied widely from county to county.

“It was glaring that there is such racial disparity,” task force member Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, said at a news conference at the Capitol in Harrisburg. “Many times you have families that are crying out to the system to say, ‘Help our family, we’re having difficulties in many different areas.’ And then that family gets snared into their child being taken away."

The task force, which included state lawmakers, officials in the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, local officials and others, made a range of administrative, statutory and budget recommendations. They include:

— Greatly expanding the use of community-based interventions as an alternative to residential placement.

— Raising the minimum age that young people can be tried as adults.

— Repealing a 1995 law that automatically requires adult prosecution in more serious cases.

— Eliminating fines and most court cost and fees.

The group said its plan would reduce the population of young people in residential facilities by nearly 40% in five years and save nearly $81 million that could be reinvested in a range of youth services.

“These young people who have done frankly many minor infractions ... many of these children should not be in the system like this,” said Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, another task force member.

Legislative leaders and Wolf formed the task force in December 2019. The group was tasked with making recommendations on how to make people safer, improve accountability and save tax dollars. Its members were appointed by Wolf, the court system and the Legislature.