Updates from the Juvenile Justice Task Force

Malik Pickett, Esq. ,
An image of the state capitol building at Harrisburg, PA.

The below information provides key information about the next Task Force meeting and describes the previous Task Force meeting, held on July 29, 2020, during which the Task Force provided updates regarding public testimony and discussed new data. 

Upcoming Meetings

The next meeting of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force is scheduled for Wednesday, August 12, 2020 from 3-5 p.m., and can be viewed on the Task Force website: http://www.pacourts.us/pa-juvenile-justice-task-force. Look for a future blog summarizing what occurs.

As mentioned in our previous blog, the Task Force will add an extra hour for public testimony to all meetings. The link to sign up to testify is now also available on the Task Force website. Currently, testimony is limited to five minutes per person, and there is a limit on the number of individuals that can testify per meeting.  Keep in mind that Task Force member attendance during the extra hour of public testimony is voluntary.

Data Analysis

In July 29, 2020 meeting, the Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew) continued presenting data on the juvenile justice system, focusing on the intake and adjudication stages of the process. (For a summary of the data presented on allegations of delinquent/criminal behavior, arrest, and pre-adjudication detention stages, please see our previous blog discussing the July 15, 2020 meeting).

The major findings from the data are: (1) the availability, type, and use of diversion options vary depending on the county, (2) racial disparities exist both in the rates of adjudication, and in the use of post-petition non-adjudication options such as consent decrees. While this blog only highlights a few key pieces of data, the PowerPoint slides containing all the data discussed during the meeting are available on the Task Force website.

Intake: Pre-Petition Diversion

The discussion began with general data regarding the availability of pre-petition (before a district attorney files a petition for formal court processing) diversion options. Pew obtained this data through questionnaires submitted to juvenile probation officers (JPOs) and juvenile court judges in various counties in Pennsylvania. Pre-petition diversion options include: restorative justice programs; youth/teen court; youth aid panels; warn and release; and informal adjustment. 

In 2018, only 35% of cases received pre-petition diversion. The most common offenses receiving pre-petition diversion were contempt from non-payment of a magisterial district court fine, possession of drugs, and simple assault.  Nearly 66% of youth assessed as low-risk offenders did not receive pre-petition diversion. Interestingly, Philadelphia accounts for 10% of the statewide written allegations, but only 5% of statewide pre-petition diversions. The average length of pre-petition diversion is 3-6 months. Race/ethnicity groups account for similar shares of pre-petition diversion relative to their percentage of written allegations; however, more females receive pre-petition diversion than males. In 2018, 82% of youth who received pre-petition diversion completed it. 

Informal Adjustment

While the availability of pre-petition diversion options varies depending on the county, informal adjustment is the most widely available. Informal adjustment is an agreement between a youth and juvenile probation/juvenile court that the youth will comply with certain conditions in lieu of undergoing formal court processing. The criteria juvenile court judges use to determine informal adjustment eligibility also varies, with consideration given to factors such as court history, offense, assessed risk level, and victim input. Conditions imposed pursuant to informal adjustment vary across counties and include restitution, apology letters, victim awareness classes, community service, and fines.  60% of JPO respondents indicated that a fine was either sometimes or always required for informal adjustment, and 91% of JPO respondents indicated that they do not consider a youth’s ability to pay in assessing that fine. 

Youth Level of Service (YLS) Risk Assessment

Pew then discussed data related to the YLS risk assessment tool which may be used at intake to assess the risk of recidivism and determine the applicability of pre-petition diversion options. The YLS tool evaluates factors such as prior and current offenses, personality/behavior, substance use, family/parenting, and education/employment. 64% of JPO respondents indicated that they use the YLS tool before disposition. Most Pennsylvania youth evaluated on the YLS tool are low risk; 54% of youth scored as a low risk to re-offend, while only 7% scored high or very high. 

Consent Decrees

After the filing of a formal petition, a youth's case may be adjudicated or resolved without a formal adjudication through avenues such as consent decrees. Consent decrees are court-ordered agreements stipulating that a youth’s court case will be suspended and juvenile probation will supervise the youth in the community. In 2018, approximately 21% of cases involving written allegations resulted in consent decrees, and 43% of youth assessed as low risk received consent decree as a first response. The most common offenses resulting in consent decrees were simple assault, possession of drugs, and terroristic threats. In most counties, youth spend between 7-9 months on consent decrees. 

In 2018, 79% of youth who received a consent decree as an initial court response completed it. Cost savings can also be achieved through consent decrees because youth with consent decrees only spent 12 months in court supervision, while adjudicated youth spent 23 months. In 2018, relative to their share of written allegations, each race/ethnicity group accounted for similar shares of consent decrees. However, racial disparities existed in the length of consent decrees, as White Non-Hispanic youth, on average, spent 20 months on consent decrees while Black-Non-Hispanic youth spent 27 months. 


Lastly, Pew discussed data regarding adjudication. Most juvenile court judges use adjudication as a first option (before utilizing any other means to dispose of the case such as diversion) in less than 25% of cases. The most common offenses that counties adjudicated as a first option were simple assault, theft-related offenses, and possession of drugs. Racial disparities also exist in the rates of adjudications. In 2018, Black Non-Hispanic youth accounted for a slightly higher percentage of adjudications relative to their share of written allegations, and White Non-Hispanic youth accounted for a lower percentage of adjudications relative to their share of written allegations.

Taken in totality, the data presented at the meetings demonstrates that racial disparities exist in the beginning stages of the juvenile justice process with arrest and continuing through into the intake and adjudication stages.   


About the Expert
Malik Pickett is a staff attorney at Juvenile Law Center who joined the organization in 2020. He advocates for the rights of youth in the juvenile justice system through litigation, amicus and policy advocacy efforts. Prior to joining Juvenile Law Center, Pickett worked as an associate attorney with the law firm of Wade Clark Mulcahy, LLP where he litigated personal injury and construction defect cases and as a legislative counsel for the Honorable Pennsylvania State Senators Shirley M. Kitchen and Jay Costa.