Transforming Justice: Bringing Pennsylvania’s Young People Safely Home from Juvenile Justice Placements

Lisa Pilnik, Robert G. Schwartz, Karen Lindell, Jessica Feierman and Christina Sorenson,
Youth standing in hallway with back to camera.

Wordsworth. VisionQuest. Glen Mills. Luzerne. Year after year, facilities in Pennsylvania are sued or shut down after the horrific treatment of youth in their care comes to light. Each time, children are removed from the placement and additional oversight is imposed to try to prevent a recurrence, and then it happens again. Oversight isn’t enough.

There is broad consensus that incarcerating youth in the juvenile justice system is both dangerous and ineffective. Secure facilities and other juvenile justice placements pose a high risk of short- and long-term harm to children. Placing young people outside their homes disrupts family ties, undermines educational continuity and developmental trajectory, and can cause trauma and undermine a child’s developmental trajectory. Recent research has shown that placement also leads to long-term mental and physical health consequences. Moreover, far too many youth sent to “treatment” facilities experience abuse or neglect and fail to receive needed behavioral health services.

Pennsylvania stakeholders have taken important steps to decrease placement rates and improve outcomes for youth—and local and state leadership is already engaged in continuing the reform efforts. At the same time, the need to dramatically change our responses to young people in the justice system is obvious. Where Pennsylvania was widely recognized as a leader in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, we now lag behind other states in the extent to which we use placement and the extent of our racial disparities.

To meet its obligations to our children, Pennsylvania must re-examine its reliance on juvenile placements. Working in collaboration with youth in the system and their families, we must create a system that stresses high-quality community-based solutions that are safer for children, promote public safety, and more effectively and efficiently use our resources.

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