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Philadelphia joins other US cities in revamping juvenile justice

Written by MaryClaire Dale/The Associated Press | Feb 6, 2019 3:17 AM
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In this Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, photo, Philadelphia Police Sgt. John Ross displays forms regarding juveniles at the Police 9th District in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(Philadelphia) -- Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner will announce plans Wednesday to keep more juveniles out of the court system and keep many who are charged out of custody.

Krasner, a longtime civil rights lawyer who took office last year, joins a wave of progressive prosecutors nationwide trying to address the "school-to-prison" pipeline that emerged in the 1990s amid fears of teenage "superpredators."

"It did far more harm than good," Krasner said Tuesday, speaking of the trend to criminalize things like behavioral problems and school infractions. "It resulted in lousy educations, (and) it broke close relationships with family and friends, positive influences that would have actually been more rehabilitative."

Philadelphia now holds about 500 juveniles each day in detention centers spread across the state and beyond, a number that's dropped from about 700 two years ago. The average placement costs about $160,000 a year per child in Pennsylvania, and can be far higher, his office said. By comparison, the Philadelphia School District spends less than $15,000 a year per student.

Krasner and first assistant Bob Listenbee, a juvenile justice expert who worked in the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, are also concerned about the system's racial disparity. Nearly three-quarters of Philadelphia children found "delinquent" by the courts are black, while the city's population is about 44 percent black.

Listenbee said the practice of holding children in dangerous jails and prisons, sometimes with adults, "traumatized a generation of young people" and left them with few skills to rebuild their lives.

The number of juveniles in the city's court system has been dropping for years, from 10,000 "petitions," or arrests, in 2001 to 2,500 last year, credited to both falling crime rates and changing attitudes. Nationally, there were about 2 million juvenile arrests per year in the 1990s, and about half that number today.

Krasner and peers in Chicago, Denver and other cities hope to reduce the number further by declining to file charges in low-level cases and building up support services in the community. His plan excludes children and teens charged with murder, rape and gun crimes, among other serious offenses.

The Philadelphia Police Department, meanwhile, has cut the number of school arrests in half through efforts to keep low-level school offenses out of court.

Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said the Supreme Court in recent years has recognized the emerging science on adolescent brain development in rulings that outlawed the death penalty, mandatory life without parole and other adult punishments for children.

However, she said, "the system is still bloated with kids who don't need to be involved in the system at all." And, she said, "it's still mostly black or brown kids, certainly in urban areas."

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