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Gov. Tom Wolf announces effort to overhaul juvenile justice in Pennsylvania

Working with The Pew Charitable Trusts, Pennsylvania officials will spend a year analyzing the juvenile-justice system, with the goal of making it safer.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said he would work with the legislative and judicial branches in examining the state's juvenile justice system.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said he would work with the legislative and judicial branches in examining the state's juvenile justice system.Read moreMatt Slocum / AP

Pennsylvania leaders will spend the next year studying the state’s juvenile justice system and how to improve the safety of youths in its care, Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday.

State lawmakers and county judges will work with the Pew Charitable Trusts to create the Juvenile Justice Task Force.

Task force members, to be appointed within the month, will deliver policy recommendations to Wolf and the legislature by Nov. 30, 2020, so that any changes can be incorporated in the 2021-22 budget.

Joined by legislative leaders and justices at the Capitol on Monday, Wolf said his recently commissioned Council on Reform “identified justice-involved youth as a vulnerable population and said that our juvenile justice system needed significant reform.”

“With this task force, we can thoroughly review our juvenile justice system and find ways to make lasting change that ensures every young Pennsylvanian is getting the support needed to grow into a successful adult,” Wolf said.

In February, an Inquirer investigation exposed how counselors at the Glen Mills Schools, a juvenile-justice facility in Delaware County, routinely abused and threatened the boys in their care. A second investigation revealed how the state — tasked with oversight of Glen Mills and similar institutions — failed to detect and stop the abuse for decades.

Citing The Inquirer’s reporting, Wolf in July signed an executive order to overhaul the state’s licensing and monitoring of juvenile programs. He created the Council on Reform to study the issue and come up with recommendations; it released a preliminary set Nov. 1.

Pew said it will help analyze how and why children enter Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system, review state regulations and practices, and ultimately recommend policy changes, at no cost.

Casting the task force as a bipartisan effort that will utilize data and research, Wolf counted the support of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny-Westmoreland), Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), among others.

“This issue touches every corner of our commonwealth,” Cutler said. “Ensuring our juvenile justice system rehabilitates our youngest offenders not only helps create a positive path for them but also strengthens families, protects communities, and promotes long-term benefits to all of us.”

>> READ MORE: Despite warnings, Pennsylvania failed to detect, stop abuse at juvenile facilities

Reducing the number of youth placed in juvenile-justice programs has long been a goal of advocates. A recent report from Juvenile Law Center, which is suing Glen Mills on behalf of abuse victims, showed that the majority of local youths were sent to programs not for violence, but for minor infractions such as skipping school or violating curfew.

State leaders voiced their interest in cost savings from reduced placement numbers.

“Improving our juvenile justice system can have an enormous positive effect on our commonwealth by preventing young Pennsylvanians from ever entering our state prison system,” Wolf said. “And that’s a good thing.”

Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of Juvenile Law Center, said she hoped Wolf appointed 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.

Monday also marked the end of the 45-day public-comment period on the Council on Reform’s Nov. 1 report. Brinda Penyak, deputy director of the County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania and a member of the council, said it would meet Monday afternoon to review the comments before releasing final recommendations.

One of the things she was most struck by, in terms of juvenile-justice reform, was the need for a well-trained and fairly paid workforce, Penyak said in an interview Friday.

The Inquirer found that many Glen Mills counselors were former college athletes who were provided with minimal training to handle at-risk youth, many of whom had suffered trauma in their pasts and went on to experience more at Glen Mills.

“As you know very well, there have been some circumstances and cases where we’ve clearly identified that the systems put in place did not identify severe problems or provide the kinds of protections that certain individuals needed,” Penyak said.

Guiding these efforts will be Dan Jurman, executive director of the Office of Advocacy and Reform. The office, and the children’s ombudsman position it houses, are both creations of Wolf’s July order.

Jurman, previously the chief executive officer of a Lancaster County antipoverty organization, said Monday that “this is more than just a job for me, as a survivor of poverty and trauma myself.”

Jurman said he would push for “changes that so many of us know have been needed for so long.”

“We can do better,” he said. “We can be sure that trauma doesn’t become a life sentence for our children.”