Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice Reform Moment Is Here
In 2019, abuses at Pennsylvania juvenile detention facilities shook the collective conscience of leaders in the state’s capital and led them to form the Juvenile Justice Task Force. Members identified urgent problems within Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system and developed 35 actionable recommendations for improvement.
Years later, the state legislature has failed to act on a single one. That could change this week as the House Judiciary Committee considers H.B. 1381, an omnibus bill that contains several task force recommendations, including:
- Requiring diversion for many lower-level charges;
- Raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 10 to 13 (in most cases);
- Prohibiting pretrial detention for youth under 14;
- Eliminating juvenile fines and fees, and limiting restitution;
- Requiring juvenile-specific Miranda rights;
- Eliminating most solitary confinement in juvenile facilities; and
- Raising the age of transfer from juvenile to adult court from 14 to 16.
The committee will also consider H.B. 1708, which intends to expand diversion for most school-based offenses and to increase educational oversight for children placed in out-of-home detention.
These changes are long overdue. According to the task force’s final report, most young people currently involved in the Pennsylvania juvenile system have not committed a serious crime, have little or no prior history of delinquency, and do not score as high risk to reoffend. In fact, at least two-thirds of youth who enter the justice system are charged with misdemeanors or technical violations. Without statewide criteria or guidelines that take severity of offense, risk profile or prior history into account, the system has become a trap for young people committing trivial violations.
Despite evidence that they work, deflection and diversion are underutilized in Pennsylvania. Instead, youth with low-level cases end up on probation or in residential detention. According to the task force, approximately 40 percent of young detainees are removed from their homes for a first offense and spend an average of 16 months away. These out-of-home placements consume the vast majority of juvenile justice spending, with the state paying up to $200,000 annually per child even though keeping them at home would be more cost effective.
The new legislation recognizes that the adult justice system is simply not equipped to handle young people. By eliminating solitary confinement for juveniles in all but the most extreme cases, Pennsylvania has the chance to end what many psychologists have come to regard as a form of torture. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, youth placed in solitary confinement in adult facilities spend an average of 32 days without human contact. Such prolonged isolation can have severe mental health impacts ranging from psychosis to self-harm. The negative effects are more acute for young detainees, who already suffer from elevated rates of mental illness.
Since the task force report was released in 2021, the challenges haven’t just persisted—they’ve magnified. The Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Study Center is bursting at the seams, with young detainees sleeping in administrative offices, deprived of education, health care and basic human dignity. Sadly, overcrowding in detention facilities is not an anomaly; however, lawmakers can alleviate this pressure by imposing sensible juvenile detention guidelines.
The status quo is untenable. It’s time for Pennsylvania to act on the recommendations painstakingly laid out more than two years ago. H.B. 1381 and H.B. 1708 are important steps toward a more humane, equitable and functional juvenile justice system for all Pennsylvanians.