Pennsylvania Taking Action to Fix High-Cost Juvenile System & Improve Public Safety

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Posted by Doug Kellogg on Monday, April 12th, 2021, 2:26 PM PERMALINK

Taxpayers in Pennsylvania are currently spending over $190,000 each year to house just one juvenile offender. This is a bad deal for everyone involved, and a sign of a government system that is not working.

The state’s juvenile justice system is not delivering the results Pennsylvanians should expect. Over recent years, a number of scandals involving abuse and pay-to-play have highlighted this fact.

Most, 60%, of the juveniles who are held in state facilities are there for a misdemeanor offense – and just 39% of those are offenses against another person.

For serious crimes, and those that indicate a threat to public safety, it is important the system detains offenders. But problems are created when low-level youth offenders are incarcerated, and removed from their families. Not only does this not reduce recidivism, research shows, it can increase it.

When high costs carried by taxpayers do not reduce crime, it is time to take a look at the system and find ways to improve it. This is where the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force comes in.

The task force, established by leaders from all branches of government, has been diving into the challenges facing the state’s juvenile system, and will soon release recommendations to address the high costs and lackluster results – along with problems highlighted by the scandals.

Even better for Pennsylvania, a number of states have laid out a successful, conservative path for juvenile justice reform that protects public safety first and foremost, while keeping communities together, improving results, and better using taxpayer dollars.

Utah has steered away from costly, ineffective detention for low-level offenses, instead turning more to programming that holds offenders accountable, while keeping them with their family. After enacting juvenile justice reforms in 2017, Utah has seen a nearly two-thirds decline in admissions to locked detention, compared to 2015 data. 

After Texas passed measures that reduced their incarcerated youth population, the state was able to close eight juvenile correctional facilities that became unnecessary, between 2007-2011. In the process, they saved taxpayers $179 million – and juvenile crime declined.

It just makes sense to focus mental health, behavioral, and addiction-focused options on low-level youth offenders who have these problems - juveniles who are not a public safety threat, and whose issues can be addressed with appropriate intervention, giving them a chance at a brighter future.

If they spend too much time in a state facility, their outlook can get worse. That is a loss for public safety, and taxpayers if they can’t become a contributing member of society.

Also on the table for Pennsylvania’s task force are reforms for excessive fines and fees, and expanding expungement for youth.

The Keystone State was the first to implement Clean Slate in the adult system – which automatically seals records for cases that did not result in a conviction, and misdemeanor offenses for people who have not reoffended. This has been a huge success.

Expunging, or sealing, a case record can be a costly and expensive process. That keeps many people from trying to get their case sealed, even when they are eligible for expungement. Given the success at the adult level, expanding and automating expungement for youth offenders who stay on the straight-and-narrow is a great policy for the Juvenile Justice Task Force to pursue. This is a pro-jobs policy, clearing someone’s record when they have earned it through good behavior makes it far easier for them to work and be a productive part of the community.

Fines and fees are another area where government has too often turned the criminal justice system into a cash grab, mixing up the role of law enforcement and tax collector. In Pennsylvania, some counties have an average fee burden of nearly $700.

Let’s be clear, restitution for crimes is important and necessary, as are fines that serve as an appropriate punishment for the offense. It is excessive fines, and fees that can keep driving up that cost, that lead to disproportionate punishment that follows an offender for years. Particularly for youth, who by their very nature of being underaged are not likely to have full-time jobs, it is necessary for the task force to pursue reform here.

Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice Task Force has the great opportunity to recommend these effective, conservative reforms. They would improve Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system by steering more kids toward a better path, where they work and contribute to society.

Republican-led states like Utah, Texas, and Kansas have shown these reforms protect public safety, reducing juvenile crime rates even as the detained population falls. And taxpayers will win as well as costs fall, and more former offenders add value to the economy.

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