By Max Kennedy
PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office released a statement this week highlighting new innovative programs intended to “treat children as children” in the criminal justice system and to focus on rehabilitation of system-involved youth.
Metrics provided by the District Attorney suggests these initiatives have potential for significant and meaningful impact in Philadelphia and beyond.
Specifically, these “groundbreaking” reforms aim to keep children accused of committing crime close to their families, try youth in juvenile court rather than adult court, and provide true rehabilitation through diversion programs and reduced sentencing.
“Our administration pledged to treat system-involved youth as kids and reform the juvenile justice system by working to make it fairer, more rehabilitative, and less retributive,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Krasner was elected to his first term as district attorney in 2018 running as a self-described “progressive attorney.”
In particular, Krasner’s office has put new emphasis on helping children in rehabilitation programs maintain close contact with their families, an idea supported by research. According to a study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, close family contact tends to improve outcomes after incarceration.
Within Philadelphia, these stay-closer-to-home initiatives seem to be working. The District Attorney’s office noted a “dramatic” 80 percent reduction in Philadelphia children living at residential placements since 2017.
And when children are sentenced to custody, the District Attorney’s office now makes a concerted effort to place incarcerated youth within the city, closer to family. There has been a corresponding 66 percent increase in the rate of youth incarcerated in or near Philadelphia, rather than other parts of the state further afield.
These reforms have also reduced the number of juveniles tried in adult court.
In 2019, six cases were adjudicated after a preliminary hearing in adult court, compared to an average of 39 each year between 2015 and 2017. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office also ended the policy forcing youth to enter a guilty plea or agree to residential placement in order to be tried in juvenile court.
The District Attorney’s office, though, acknowledged that reducing sentencing alone cannot solve all problems, noting, “Simply moving youth out of the juvenile justice system isn’t enough because many require support to ensure they don’t recidivate.”
To address this issue, the Juvenile Diversion Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has nearly tripled the number of rehabilitation-focused diversion service providers from eight to 21. These community-based organizations provide a range of services from housing and food, to artistic instruction and career-readiness programming.
One program, “Hopeworks,” offers a training program for computer programming. Nearly 90 percent of youth who complete the program secure employment. “Hopeworks” and other partners focus on rehabilitation to help get system-impacted children back on their feet.
These diversion programs can offer benefits for victims as well. Youth in diversion programs often secure work, and in 2020 diverted youth were able to earn and pay nearly $20,000 in restitution to victims. A new pilot program in partnership with United Way of Greater Philadelphia may help victims receive restitution even more quickly in the future.
The District Attorney’s office is also looking to expand the path to rehabilitation for those who committed severe crimes.
“Krasner also believes in giving youth who have committed the gravest offenses a chance at redemption,” the statement reads. The office claims to have “holistically” considered every case subject to re-sentencing and offered sentences 11 years shorter when compared to the previous administration.
More than 170 juvenile lifers have since been released as a result of resentencing. Notably, just two of those released were rearrested for committing a new crime, according to the study “Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience.”
“These developments are both hopeful and instructive as we reimagine a youth justice system that increasingly relies on community resources rather than secure correctional facilities, and that listens to the voices of those directly involved to prioritize caring and rehabilitation over custody and control,” said Marsha Levick, Chief Legal Officer at the Juvenile Law Center.
Krasner thanked First Assistant Robert Listenbee, Senior Policy Advisor Dana Bazelon and the entire Juvenile Unit for spearheading the initiatives and called the changes “perhaps the most impactful and substantial of any of the reforms implemented by my administration.”
Max Kennedy graduated from Harvard in 2016 with a degree in history. He is an intern with the San Francisco Public Defender and most recently worked as a digital organizer with Joe Biden for President.
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