Pennsylvania’s youth incarceration rate is the seventh highest in the nation, and more than nine black children are imprisoned for every white child.
Facing one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the nation, Pennsylvania lawmakers announced a task force Monday to study the state’s juvenile justice system.
Pennsylvania’s youth incarceration rate is the seventh highest in the nation, according to data from the Justice Department, and imprisons far more children of color. In 2015, the state had 2,826 juveniles in facilities, with black children outnumbering white children more than 9-to-1.
The Juvenile Justice Task Force has until November to issue recommendations on how to make people safer, improve accountability, and save tax dollars. They are working with the Pew Charitable Trusts to use data and research to inform an overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system.
The task force received bipartisan support. Gov. Tom Wolf (D-Pa.) in a statement said it was an “important step toward protecting vulnerable young Pennsylvanians.” One of the top Republicans in the state, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), said the work “promotes long-term benefits to all of us.”
The creation of the task force comes after a year in which Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system came under scrutiny.
In February, a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation found counselors at the Glen Mills Schools, a juvenile-justice facility in Delaware County, routinely abused and threatened the boys in their care. The investigation sparked lawsuits and led Wolf to sign an executive order in July that ordered an overhaul of the state’s licensing and monitoring of juvenile programs. The group formed from that effort released its initial recommendations on Nov. 1 and identified the state’s juvenile justice system as needing serious reform.
In October, the Juvenile Law Center (JLC), a Philadelphia based nonprofit, published a report that found youth placement in juvenile facilities is harmful, ineffective, and expensive. The report calls on state officials to stop sending children to juvenile facilities and recommends reforms aimed at keeping children in their communities.
The report’s authors also urged state lawmakers to limit detention and placements for children who are 14 and younger, who are are pregnant or have given birth in the past six months, or have been charged with technical probation violations, misdemeanors nonviolent offenses, or non-payment of fines, fees, or restitution. They called on lawmakers to repeal laws that impose fines and costs associated with the juvenile justice system on youth and their families.
“Failure to pay such costs can lead to further system involvement and ultimately to detention or incarceration, and can deepen poverty, increase racial disparities, and increase recidivism rates,” the authors wrote.
Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the JLC, told the Inquirer this week that she hopes Wolf will name young people and people of color to the task force.
“We are hopeful that the Juvenile Justice Task Force will lead to a real and meaningful transformation of our youth justice system, and in particular to reforms that will limit incarceration and keep young people in their homes and communities,” Feierman said.
The legislature will appoint eight members of the 12-member task force, Wolf will appoint two, and the state courts will appoint the final two. All appointments will be made within the next month.
The task force will have until Nov. 30, 2020 to issue its formal recommendations.