Two bills aimed at reducing the number of juveniles in the criminal justice system by creating diversionary programs cleared the state House Judiciary Committee last week.
Both bills address issues identified in the state’s 2021 Juvenile Justice Task Force report, cleared the committee on party-line votes, with the Democratic majority in favor.
The report found Pennsylvania arrests juveniles, especially young people of color, at higher rates than neighboring states.
The more expansive bill, sponsored by Democratic Whip Dan Miller, D-Allegheny County, includes a number of items on how juvenile offenders are penalized.
The bill would restrict children from being charged as adults, and would remove the so-called “direct file” provision that allows prosecutors to place juveniles in adult court right off the bat for certain offenses – a change long sought by reform advocates.
Miller’s bill would also eliminate fines and fees, cap probation terms, and expand the use of diversion programs intended to keep young offenders off probation and out of juvenile detention facilities.
Such programs are still under-used in Pennsylvania, with more than half of first-time youth offenders with misdemeanors going straight to court without the chance at doing a diversion program, according to the task force report. Advocates have pointed to this as a key driver behind overcrowding in detention centers, which was the subject of a House hearing earlier this year.
The core concept of the bill, Miller said, is that most young offenders are not on the path to more serious crimes as an adult, but “the longer you’re in the system, the worse your results tend to get,” and many low-level youth offenders are being kept in the system by punitive policies.
A second bill that cleared committee Wednesday similarly requires more diversionary programs in schools and limits in-school infractions from being referred to police and courts. Pennsylvania refers school incidents to law enforcement 2.7 times more frequently than the national average, according to the task force report.
That bill is sponsored by Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York County, and also has a Republican cosponsor in Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny County. However, the judiciary committee’s Republican membership voted unanimously against both bills, voicing concerns that they could hamstring law enforcement and school discipline.
“I’m concerned that this legislation, instead of fixing a problem, creates further problems,” the committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, said of Miller’s bill. “I certainly think there’s room for some of the provisions here but this bill certainly goes too far.”