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Lawmakers from both parties urge votes on juvenile justice reform

  • Ben Wasserstein/WITF
The Pennsylvania Judicial Center serves as the administrative center for the state court system.

 Ed Mahon / Spotlight PA

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center serves as the administrative center for the state court system.

At the top of the Capitol steps, Hillary Transue decried Pennsylvania’s system of rehabilitating juvenile offenders.

She was a victim of former judge and convicted felon Mark Ciavarella’s “cash for kids” scandal, and she was in disbelief that so little had changed since then.

“My peers, particularly those who endured Ciavarella’s legacy, harbored hope for a fairer system,” she said. “Unfortunately, 15 years later, that hope has largely faded.”

Others who had been detained when they were younger joined her last week in criticizing the system and detailed the trauma they experienced in custody.

Lawmakers from both parties and in both chambers have introduced legislation to reform the state’s system of juvenile justice. But their measures have stalled short of a floor vote.

Pennsylvania allows children to be automatically charged as adults for certain offenses. This is known as direct file.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Beaver, said that can lead to a litany of problems.

“Direct file can lead to kids sitting for months in adult jails, exposing them to solitary confinement,” she said. “That’s 23 hours a day in a cell. They lose their education, some lose scholarships, and the stigma goes on and on. Many suffer from trauma and victimization.”

Bartolotta is the founder of both the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus and the Youth Safety Caucus.

She is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate direct file and change the criteria for transferring juveniles to adult court.

A separate omnibus bill in the house would also eliminate direct file, but also do more such as capping misdemeanor probation at eight months and felony probation at 12 and increasing the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 13 and prohibiting criminal prosecution of kids under 10, among other things.

House Majority Whip Dan Miller, D-Allegheny, is a sponsor. He says these changes are necessary to make sure the juvenile system is actually appropriate for juveniles.

“We are trying to be sure that in this system we are recognizing every child that’s there, no matter what your issues and needs that brought you in, that the goal is to make sure that the experience is right, justice is done, accountability is met, but improvement in life is achieved,” he said.

Neither bill has come to a floor vote. The Senate bill hasn’t even made it out of committee.

Rep. Paul Schemel, R- Franklin, is an attorney on the judiciary committee. He said he voted against it in committee because it could allow dangerous people back on the street.

“Some of what it does, it really makes it difficult to move a juvenile from juvenile court into adult court, which sounds like a good thing,” he said. “But oftentimes there are juveniles who are, first off, approaching adulthood and commit terrible crimes. By keeping them within juvenile court we’re very limited in what we can do with regard to incarceration.”

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