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Law enforcement concerned juvenile justice too lax
The Citizens' Voice - 4/16/2023
Apr. 16—During the infamous kids-for-cash scandal, hundreds of youths accused of minor offenses were sent to for-profit prisons by two judges corrupted by greed.
Reforms enacted in the aftermath have largely rectified the problem of arbitrary incarcerations, but now some Luzerne County law enforcement officials are concerned the juvenile justice system has overcorrected itself — going from being far too severe to being too lenient.
Police and prosecutors say juvenile crime is up, and that the offenders aren't seeing the types of consequences that will deter others from following their bad examples.
"We're seeing more crime than before with fewer places to put kids," District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce said. "Before there were too many kids going away. But kids are still committing very serious crimes. ... A lot of our schools are out of control because the kids know that no matter what they do, there isn't any punishment for them."
Kingston police Chief Richard Kotchik echoed those sentiments, saying a surge in fights at Wyoming Valley West Middle School prompted him to add a school resource officer in an effort to quell the violence.
"We have never seen what we've been seeing over the past two years, and it's like your hands are tied because nothing's happening to them," Kotchik said, noting his department has made more than 40 arrests for drugs and fighting this school year alone. "Nothing's really happening to them as far as the system goes. The schools are doing what they can do as far suspensions, but when it comes down to the juvenile criminal justice system there's really no consequences anymore."
One example they cite as evidence of the system's growing leniency is a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held juvenile killers cannot face mandatory life imprisonment.
That ruling has already had direct impact on local cases, including the case of Kenneth Carl Crawford III, who used a silenced .22-caliber rifle to execute Diana Algar, 39, and her friend Jose Molina, 33, during a robbery at her trailer in Hollenback Twp. in 1999.
Since he was 15 years old at the time of the slayings, Crawford's mandatory life sentence was overturned and he was re-sentenced to 52 years to life in prison.
Sanguedolce described Crawford as an "extremely sophisticated" criminal and said his case shows the system has gone too far in the other direction.
"Can we pull back the pendulum from swinging too far?" he said. "There is a happy medium there somewhere."
Another example they cite is a proposal that would end the practice of automatically charging minors accused of serious crimes as adults.
The bill, introduced last summer by state Rep. Chris Rabb, D-200, Philadelphia, would reverse a 1995 law that requires youths between 15 and 17 who are charged with certain felonies be charged in adult court if they meet certain requirements, such as the use of a weapon during the crime.
In a statement announcing the legislation, Rabb said the "direct file" law disproportionately targets Black youths for adult prosecution and that the majority of the cases in which youths are tried as adults end up either being dismissed, withdrawn, or returned to the juvenile system.
"Instead of helping our youth, this 'direct file' law has been proven time and time again to be a failure, nothing more than a cruel, unnecessary punishment that forces children into the adult prison system," Rabb said in the statement. "We should ensure the legal system treats all children as children by prohibiting direct filing and transfer of cases involving children to the adult system."
Sanguedolce and Kotchik both voiced opposition to the proposal, saying a 17-year-old who commits murder shortly before becoming an adult should not be treated as a child.
"That's just crazy," Kotchik said of the proposal. "At 17 years old, you should know the difference between right and wrong, especially when it comes to crimes like this."
'No place to put them'
A major issue facing the juvenile justice system is a shortage of beds. Sanguedolce said the shortage has resulted in juveniles who have committed serious crimes being released because "there was literally no place to put them."
"The shortage of beds has arisen because the private industry has gotten out of the business," he said.
According to a December 2021 report by the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission, access to secure detention beds was down across the state because 15 detention facilities had closed between 2006 and 2021, leaving only 14 facilities plus one in Ohio.
As of the time of the report, that left only 416 staffed secure beds for juveniles across Pennsylvania.
The report also notes that facilities have discretion to decide which youth to accept. As a result, detention requests can be denied for reasons ranging from a facility not accepting out-of-county youth to behavioral concerns to staffing issues.
"Between June 2021 and October 2021, there were at least 62 instances of juvenile probations departments making a detention request that ultimately resulted in an (alternative to detention) or the release of a juvenile due to the lack of available secure detention beds," the report says. "Among those 62 cases, there have been at least 10 instances of these released youth either committing a new offense before their scheduled court hearing or failing to appear for their scheduled court hearing."
The commission's 2021 annual report shows Luzerne County had 248 delinquency allegations — down from 508 in 2017 — but only 20 admissions into secure detention. The median length of detention for those youths was 11 days.
Not everyone agrees with the assessment that the juvenile justice system is getting soft on crime.
Marsha Levick, chief legal officer and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said she believes the system is "not remotely" too lenient when dealing with juvenile offenders.
While it's true that bed and staffing shortages are affecting the juvenile justice system — the byproduct of a "substantial reduction in arrests" in the past decade — officials should be focused on getting creative about dealing with juvenile offenders, she said.
"It's not just about finding 1,000 new beds. It's also about being smart about how we ultimately hold kids accountable," Levick said. "We have a problem in the U.S. that because we only think that accountability or responsibility can be established through incarceration. We think that everything is a crime that requires incarceration, and that's just not true. I think what may be happening up in Luzerne County, frankly, is a failure of imagination. There are many ways to hold children responsible for the conduct they engage in."
As an organization, the Juvenile Law Center is opposed to trying juveniles as adults at all, she said.
Rather than being incarcerated, most juveniles should get treatment and rehabilitation to correct their behavior and prevent them from re-offending, she said.
"Incarceration is, in most instances, not the answer. There is so much research out there that incarceration more often than not creates harms, exacerbates harms, exacerbates trauma, increases the risk of recidivism," Levick said. "It's not about punishment. Responsibility and accountability is not synonymous with punishment. It is what it is. It's about helping kids appreciate the consequences of what they've done, to take responsibility for it."
Help from lawmakers
In their search for a solution, Sanguedolce and Kotchik have been meeting with Luzerne County's legislators.
In addition to resolving the bed issue, Kotchik said he would like to see some type of alternative learning center get established so the students causing the problems can be separated.
"You would probably change the dynamic in the school," Kotchik said. "My biggest concern is what about the kids that want to be in school? What about the kids that are afraid to go to the bathroom or are afraid to walk the halls because of these kids that are causing these problems? And there's nowhere to put them. That's the problem."
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-14, Lehman Twp., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that after more than a decade of operating under the reforms implemented after the kids-for-cash scandal it has become clear that practices vary across Pennsylvania's 67 counties.
She said lawmakers are working on proposals that could address some of the concerns of law enforcement, and added that Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro's experience as the former attorney general "gives optimism we can once again address troubling flaws in the system."
"As in every aspect of the justice system, we must constantly adjust state law, policy, and funding to address problems and improve outcomes," Baker said. "We now have a new set of reform recommendations for legislative consideration produced by a bipartisan group of professionals. As is reflected in the concerns expressed by our local district attorney, law enforcement officers, and school officials, there remain differences between those who believe the pendulum has swung too far toward leniency, and those in other areas who believe too many juveniles are still being pushed into the system to a detrimental effect. The Judiciary Committee is working to gain sufficient consensus to advance a package of reforms reconciling differing perspectives."
State Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-120, Kingston, said violent offenders need to be held accountable for their actions in order to protect the community and especially students who want to learn. Noting there have already been many changes in the juvenile justice system, he said authorities need to continue to adapt to ensure the right balance in dealing with juvenile crime across the state.
"We are talking about the lives and futures of the children in our community," Kaufer said. "As we continue to get out from under the dark days of the 'kids for cash' scandal, we need to find the appropriate balance in how we deal with crime and violence in our schools and communities. Everyone acknowledges that the current system is broken, and we need to find the right balance when it comes to disciplinary actions, whether through the school environment or through law enforcement."
State Rep. Alec Ryncavage, R-119, Plymouth, echoed those sentiments, saying elected leaders are working to find solutions.
"Our hard-working students, parents, teachers, and law enforcement officers are being failed by our current system," Ryncavage said. "We need to find the right balance between holding children accountable for their actions while at the same time making sure the penalties fit the behavior. By connecting our school district with its legislators and local law enforcement, we have been analyzing models across the state, refining them, and creating a plan that will lead to transformative change in our community."
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