Philly DA aims to limit juvenile arrests, jail placements

Written by MaryClaire Dale/The Associated Press | Feb 6, 2019 5:37 PM

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner walks to a podium to speak with members of the media during a news conference in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Krasner announced plans Wednesday to keep more juveniles out of the court system and keep many who are charged out of custody. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(Philadelphia) -- Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is revamping city policies to try to limit the number of children arrested and held in 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."

"The children that these policies seek to help are those who have committed misdemeanor or low-level felony offenses and who are sent to placement or supervised for long periods of time for behavioral problems that could be better treated outside the justice system and closer to home," Krasner said at a news conference Wednesday.

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 is 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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