The Philadelphia juvenile justice system could shift away from incarcerating and heavily supervising young people and toward opportunities for diversion under new policies District Attorney Larry Krasner outlined Wednesday.
Those changes include pushing judges to reduce conditions placed on juvenile probation; barring prosecutors from seeking to incarcerate juveniles younger than 14 or guilty only of a misdemeanor without a unit supervisor’s permission; and greatly expanding the use of diversion programs that allow juveniles to avoid adjudication and quickly expunge their charges.
“The policies set forth here seek to shrink the footprint of the juvenile justice system by decreasing the number of youth sent to juvenile placement and limiting the use of unnecessary supervision,” Krasner said at a news conference, flanked by advocates from the Juvenile Law Center who said it was the first time a DA had given them a seat at the table.
The changes do not apply to juveniles who are repeat offenders or who are charged with serious crimes including gun possession, aggravated assault resulting in serious injury, sexual assault, and other felonies involving weapons.
“The children that these policies seek to help are those who have committed misdemeanor or low-level felony offenses and who are sent to placement or supervised for long periods of time for behavioral problems that could be better treated outside the justice system and closer to home,” Krasner said.
During his administration’s first year in office, the number of juveniles held in placement fell from 604 to 516, and the number of minors jailed on adult charges declined from 43 to 10, he said.
Even so, Philadelphia has the state’s highest rate of placement. The city accounts for 12 percent of the state’s population, but its young people make up 28 percent of all youth in placement.
Keir Bradford-Grey, Philadelphia’s chief public defender, called Krasner’s announcement a “major milestone.”
“We do see the DA’s Office as a partner in our efforts to bring better outcomes to our youth,” she said. “We will not agree on every single thing, but if we agree on the overall goal, we can work out how we get there.”
Still, the announcement was not the dramatic reform some had hoped to see.
“There was lots of sizzle, but no steak. I really was looking for something more innovative and trailblazing,” said Leola Hardy, chief of the Defender Association’s Children and Youth Justice Unit. She was encouraged by Krasner’s commitment, but thought the prosecutor could do more. She held up as a model the Miami prosecutor’s office, which she said is no longer prosecuting juvenile misdemeanors or children younger than 12, instead putting preventive services in place.
That’s the kind of approach Hardy would like to see in Philadelphia. Instead, she said, the prosecutors will continue bringing cases, leaving it up to judges to decide how to proceed.
Some changes were already underway when Krasner took office, and juvenile crime has been on the decline for years: The number of juvenile cases filed fell from 10,000 in 2001 to 2,400 last year. And, a police-led push to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline has cut the number of kids arrested after in-school incidents by two-thirds in five years.
“We are no longer incarcerating youth as a first step,” Krasner said.
First Assistant DA Robert Listenbee said probation reform could be among the highest-impact measures, as 72 percent of children sent to placement are there because of probation violations, such as missing curfew or unexcused absences from school.
“Most of our kids are given three, four, five, six conditions. What is that? That’s a prescription for failure,” he said.
Under the new policy, prosecutors will seek no more than three probation conditions. If kids violate probation or fail to show up for court, prosecutors who might have asked for incarceration in the past are to seek less restrictive options, such as in-home detention, evening reporting, or GPS monitoring.
As Listenbee and others noted, young people’s outcomes in juvenile placement are notoriously poor.
Only 36 percent of justice-involved youth in Philadelphia graduate from high school, according to one study. And Philadelphia has stopped sending young people to several facilities after reported assaults by staff, including one incident that led to the death of 17-year-old David Hess in 2016. It’s also a system that disproportionately affects poor and black Philadelphians; 71 percent of children in secure detention from the city are African American, while just 5.6 percent are white.
Councilwoman Helen Gym said Krasner’s announcement aligns with the work underway to move more young people out of placements that she said operate with almost no oversight.
Krasner also urged the city to stop placing juveniles who are in adult jails in solitary confinement, though he has not sought to move all juveniles out of the jails. He did say he intends to get ahead of a deadline set by federal lawmakers to do so within three years.
But he has not expressed an intention to cease filing charges in adult court, as criminal-justice reform advocates have urged.
Instead, Krasner described incremental progress: 85 percent of minors charged as adults are now being decertified to juvenile court, compared with just 60 percent under the previous administration. Far fewer are being charged as adults in the first place. And, those decisions are being made within days, not months, allowing kids who will ultimately be moved to juvenile court to spend less time in adult jail.
Hardy said the problem is what that rapid flow of minors from the adult system back into the juvenile court represents: kids who, in almost all cases, have agreed to plead guilty in juvenile court to avoid lengthy adult prison terms.
“We have young kids who have to make these decisions in a very, in my opinion, coercive way," she said. "'Do I have to stay here in adult jail, or am I going to plead guilty to something I maybe didn’t do just so I can be moved to juvenile court?'”