‘Harms to our children are widespread’: Philly nonprofit calls for state to overhaul juvenile justice system

The Glen Mills Schools in Glen Mills, Pa., is shown Thursday, March 7, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The Glen Mills Schools in Glen Mills, Pa., is shown Thursday, March 7, 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

A new report out of Philadelphia calls on state officials to stop sending children to facilities for juvenile offenders, saying they’re expensive, ineffective and “pose a high risk of short- and long-term harm” to minors — including emotional and physical abuse. 

Released Friday by the nonprofit Juvenile Law Center, the report recommends systemic reforms aimed at helping these children stay in their neighborhoods and avoid placement in institutions in the first place. 

“It’s not just a problem of a few bad apples. Harms to our children are widespread,” said Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of Juvenile Law Center, during a news conference. 

The authors want Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass legislation that limits detention and placements for children who are 14 and younger; pregnant or have given birth in the past six months; or have been charged with misdemeanor non-violent offenses, technical probation violations, or non-payment of fines, fees or restitution. 

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The report, titled “Transforming Justice: Bringing Pennsylvania’s Young People Safely Home from Juvenile Justice Placements,” also calls for more public dollars for juvenile defense, as well as training for “all persons working in any aspect of the juvenile justice system.” The trainings would address implicit bias, racial and ethnic disparities, and de-escalation, among other topics. 

In 2015, Black youth were nine times more likely to be incarcerated as their white counterparts. Latinx and Native American youth were three times more likely, according to the report. 

“At each stage of our reforms, we should be tracking what’s working and what’s not and continually improving our process,” Feierman said. 

The law center’s report comes roughly six months after the state shut down Glenn Mills Schools after officials found staffers were regularly beating students sent to the all-boys school. 

The ongoing abuse was exposed by the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Friday’s report also coincides with the release of a related list of recommendations from the Council on Reform, a group formed by an executive order from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. 

The 25-member council, tasked with finding solutions for improving and supporting “the protection of vulnerable populations,” is also calling for sweeping changes to the state’s juvenile justice system, but not for an outright end to juvenile facilities.

Its recommendations for juvenile offenders include ending the practice of housing children in adult incarceration facilities; ensuring mental health services are available to children in detention centers; and investing in mediation, mentorships and education services.

“I look forward to reading and analyzing these recommendations and to our next steps to make much-needed changes,” Wolf said in a press release. 

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