juvenile justice reform

Juvenile Justice Reform

Key Points

  • The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force (Task Force) found most youth entering the juvenile justice system committed low-level offenses and are “low risk to reoffend.”[1]
  • Studies suggest community-based diversions instead of “out-of-home” residential placements could significantly reduce the likelihood of low-risk youth reoffending.[2] Yet, Pennsylvania spends 80 percent of juvenile delinquency dollars on residential placements which often increase future crime.[3]
  • Legislation implementing the task force’s recommendations would increase community-based diversions—in place of less effective penalties, such as excessive fees, and frequent residential placements. It also reduces charging children as adults to help them successfully transition to adulthood.
  • By prioritizing diversions, experts estimate Pennsylvania would place 39 percent fewer youth away from home over the projected five-year span—saving $81 million to reinvest in a system that better promotes public safety.[4]
  • Pennsylvania can achieve safer communities, stronger families, and smarter spending by implementing these evidence-based reforms.


The United States incarcerates more youth per capita than any developed nation.[5] Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system has made progress to counteract this trend, but remains dogged by allegations of abuse and ranks poorly on adequate legal protections for young people in the justice system.[6] It falls short of consistently implementing evidence-based policies that best transition youth to a crime-free adulthood.

Definitions of terms to help understand Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system:

  • Formal disposition: A determination (“sentence”) made after a youth appears before the court and is charged delinquent, and likely includes court-supervised probation or residential placement.
  • Community Diversion: An informal case processing alternative to a formal disposition that assigns youth services in the community instead of court-supervised probation or residential placements. Services can include intensive and customized therapy, community service, outpatient substance abuse services, youth courts, youth aid panels, victim-offender mediation, and/or other requirements imposed on a juvenile that do not require leaving their family or community.
  • Residential placement: A formal disposition removing youth from their family and community and placing them in a residential placement facility.
  • Detention facilities: Facilities that house youth awaiting their court appearance or disposition.
  • Low Risk: A risk and needs assessment determination that a youth’s risk of recidivism or reoffending is low.
  • Summary offense: An offense under the jurisdiction of the Magisterial District Court, not the juvenile court, and includes behaviors such as possession of alcohol or disorderly conduct. Most often, it results in a fine. A Summary contempt occurs when a youth fails to fulfill their sentence for a summary offense. The Magisterial District Court Judge holds them in contempt and refers them to juvenile court on an allegation of delinquency.

Over half of Pennsylvania youth enter the juvenile system as low risk without any delinquent history. Many appear before a judge and receive a formal disposition—despite evidence that more intensive involvement in the juvenile justice system increases the likelihood of future offenses.[7]

  • One youth recounts, “I was in eight different placements, and it all started with truancy. How did that happen? I didn’t get any warning. I was 14 when that happened.” This scenario is not uncommon, with an average of six residential placements for a juvenile.[8]
  • Pennsylvania locks up more juveniles in residential placements than the national average (129 vs. 114 per 100,000 youth).[9] Just a fraction of youth receive community diversions despite the fact diversions have been shown to reduce future delinquency versus formal dispositions.[10]
  • Lack of statewide criteria to guide juvenile justice decision-making contributes to the overuse of formal dispositions, which are less effective for many low-level, low-risk, nonviolent youth and inconsistently imposed. For instance, just two percent of cases were diverted in Monroe County, compared to 69 percent in York County.[11]
  • Pennsylvania does not fully align juvenile policies with adolescent development science. For example, two longitudinal studies involving Pennsylvania youth find most  reduce delinquent behavior as they age while remaining in their communities. Formal court involvement and residential placements interrupt this desistance from crime and often increase the likelihood of rearrest and educational harm.[12]
  • Other states have successfully reduced crime while locking up fewer youth. For instance, by prioritizing community diversions, Kansas dropped residential placements by two-thirds while seeing a 29 percent decline in arrests.[13]

The bipartisan, interbranch Task Force spent nearly two years studying the system and interviewing stakeholders to develop 35 recommendations. The legislation outlined below contains their proven reforms to create safer communities, stronger families, and a smarter juvenile justice system.[14]

Promote Community Diversions to Reduce Recidivism

Nearly 75 percent of youth in residential placement have no prior adjudicated offenses, and nearly 60 percent committed a misdemeanor. Yet, once placed under this formal supervision, they are more likely to be rearrested, incarcerated, and violent than similarly situated youth who receive community-based diversions.[15]

In contrast, 80 percent of youth offered community-based diversions complete them without further escalation in their cases.[16] Unfortunately, most low-level offending youth are denied this opportunity. Examples of diversions include:

  • The Strengthening Families Program provides prevention services at just $1,754 per participant.[17]
  • Positive Action, a school-based prevention program that significantly reduces violence, suspensions, and school-level disciplinary referrals, costs approximately $63 per student.[18]
  • Similarly, Multisystemic Therapy spends $8,600 per youth on intensive multi-faceted treatment for youth exhibiting serious antisocial behavior and their families.[19]
  • Short-term Functional Family Therapy deploys a team of therapists and may offer remedial education, job training, and school placement. This proven therapy program can reduce recidivism for residential-risk adolescents for under $4,000 per youth annually.[20]

Senate Bill 1241, sponsored by Sens. Camera Bartolotta (R) and Anthony Williams (D), would:

  • Expand, standardize, and clarify community diversions to improve outcomes for youth and communities.
  • Reduce the length of time a young person can spend in detention awaiting the judge’s ruling and expand access to detention alternatives.
  • Limit admission to juvenile detention facilities to older youth (14 years old or older) or those who have committed serious offenses or pose a public safety risk.
  • Limit financial penalties from sending youth deeper into the juvenile system by eliminating financial obligations and ensuring payments to victims are within a youth’s ability to pay.
  • Provide youth a minimum wage for work while in placement.
  • Reserve residential placement for serious cases that threaten community safety, and additionally limit the default length of stay.
  • Increase review hearings from every nine to three months, helping courts better track a youth’s progress.[21]

Senate Bill 1227, sponsored by Sens. Lisa Baker (R), Jay Costa (D), and Steven Santarsiero (D), would:

  • Ensures the human services code aligns the child welfare goals of delinquent youth with the priorities of the juvenile system, prioritizing community-based services and resources for youth rehabilitation, safety, and successful transition from residential placements to communities.[22]

Utah passed legislation in 2017 and 2020 that prioritizes community diversions for certain low-level offenses. In the first year after passage, 78 percent of low-risk youth received diversions, and 50 percent fewer low-risk youth were locked in detention centers, saving $9 million.[23]

Limit the Practice of Charging Youth as Adults

Charging youth as adults fails to deter crime for most juveniles. These youth have far higher recidivism rates than those remaining in the juvenile system—even for similar offenses.[24] Despite this, each year hundreds of youth are automatically charged as adults and held in adult jails. This practice is known as direct file.[25]

Further, judges have the discretion to transfer non-direct files cases to the adult system and do so at least 70 percent of the time they review a potential adult prosecution.[26] However, these transfers vary widely by county and demographic. Often, the burden rests on youth to prove that they should not be prosecuted as adults.[27]

When children are prosecuted as adults, 60 percent of the cases are dismissed, returned to juvenile court, or withdrawn.[28] In the meantime, youth await trial in adult jails—exposed to dangerous incarcerated individuals and with limited access to quality education or juvenile services.[29]

Senate Bill 1240, sponsored by Sens. Bartolotta (R) and A. Williams (D), would:

  • Eliminate direct file—the practice of automatically charging children as adults.
  • Originate all juvenile cases in juvenile court, reducing the inefficiency in the current system where the majority of direct file cases return to juvenile courts.
  • Narrow case transfers to adult court to youth aged 16 and older (instead of 14 years old) and shift the burden to the court to prove adult prosecution is necessary.
  • Prohibit detaining youth under 18 years old in adult jail.[30]

Ensuring Counsel for Children

Lack of state funding for indigent youth leaves many juveniles without quality defense representation simply because they cannot afford to pay—harming equity and fairness across Pennsylvania.[31]

Senate Bill 1229, sponsored by Sens. Baker (R), Costa (D), and Santarsiero (D), would:

  • Expand indigent defense by clarifying that the state’s current 50 percent reimbursement rate to counties will cover the cost of lawyers for indigent children in delinquency proceedings.[32]

Limiting the Harmful Impact of Fines and Fees

Instead of increasing accountability, juvenile fines and fees extend formal court involvement and increase the likelihood of family debt, missed school and work, and longer placements. Extended surveillance presents more opportunities for technical violations, which can escalate into residential placements.[33]

Further, costs vary widely and are not tied to a youth’s/family’s ability to pay. Fines and fees are between $53 and $673 based purely upon the county of residence.[34] Compounding financial obligations can lead to debt, which encourages criminal behavior.[35]

Senate Bill 1233, sponsored by Sens. Amanda Cappelletti (D) and Gene Yaw (R), would:

  • Eliminate all financial conditions on youth except restitution and restitution fees.
  • Limit restitution fund fees to $10, without limiting restitution paid directly to victims.
  • Keep youth from falling deeper into the system by eliminating court involvement for failure to pay fines in summary offense cases.[36]

Numerous states, such as Nevada and Utah, have all moved to limit juvenile involvement for financial obligations with positive results.[37], [38]

Rewarding Youth Progress

Research finds no consistent relationship between the length of residential placement and recidivism, even for youth who commit more serious offenses.[39] Pennsylvania youth sent to residential placements spend an average of 16 months away from home—with total case lengths lasting over three years.[40]

Once placed out-of-home, youth receive dispositional review hearings every six to nine months—restricting the ability to adjust services or reward youth for making progress.

Senate Bill 1228, sponsored by Sens. Baker (R), Costa (D), and Santarsiero (D), would:

  • Increase review hearings from every nine to three months, helping courts better track a youth’s progress.
  • Outline goals for each hearing that include determining if youth receive the necessary services, pose a community threat, or are ready for release to lesser supervision.[41]

Streamlining Expungement of Juvenile Records

Juvenile records follow youth into adulthood, creating education, employment, and housing barriers. Because expunging records is not automatic, expungement occurs in just 24 percent of dismissed/withdrawn cases and four percent of eligible adjudicated cases.[42] Further, youth with misdemeanors must wait five years for eligibility, keeping emerging adults from education and work opportunities.

Senate Bill 1226, sponsored by Sens. Baker (R), Costa (D), and Santarsiero (D) would:

  • Create a consistent and standardized expungement process initiated by the court, removing the burden from the youth to initiate the process.
  • Shorten the expungement eligibility timeframe to six months after completion of diversions and two years for most misdemeanors, while retaining the five-year timeframe for felonies and certain misdemeanors.[43]

States including Texas, Alaska, and Illinois automatically seal records upon an individual turning a certain age, ranging from 18 to 22 years old.[44]

Reinvest Savings to Increase Accountability

The commonwealth spends $350 million annually on juvenile delinquency. Approximately 80 percent of this spending goes towards sending youth to residential placements. Since 2015, the cost of state-run residential facilities has jumped 54 percent to nearly $193,000 per child—roughly 50 times the cost of an average community program diversion.[45]

Senate Bill 1261, sponsored by Sens. David Argall (R) and Sharif Street (D), would:

  • Establish a fund to reinvest savings—resulting from reduced reliance on residential placement—into effective, community-based services and restitution funds.
  • Increase system accountability and address inequities through tracked reinvestments and enhanced public data reporting, racial impact statements, and representation from youth and families on oversight bodies.[46]


The Task Force inspired reforms will divert millions of dollars to interventions that keep kids with their families and communities instead of in juvenile institutions or adult facilities.

The Task Force estimates Pennsylvania would send 270 fewer children (39 percent) to residential placements over five years—generating approximately $81 million in savings.[47] In addition to supporting victims by filling restitution funds, the commonwealth would reinvest these funds into evidence-based, alternative practices that continue to net savings beyond projections, as reinvestment models have demonstrated in Pennsylvania and other states.[48]

Pennsylvania youth deserve a hopeful future. Fortunately, evidence-based practices offer a path forward for these children and the safety of their home communities.

[1]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” (Harrisburg: The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania,June 2021), 12, https://www.pacourts.us/Storage/media/pdfs/20210622/152647-pajuvenilejusticetaskforcereportandrecommendations_final.pdf.

[2]Holly Wilson and Robert Hoge, “The Effect of Youth Diversion Programs on Recidivism: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 40, No. 5(May 2013): 497–518, http://users.soc.umn.edu/~uggen/Wilson_CJB_13.pdf.

[3]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 24.

[4]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 5.

[5]Anthony Petrosino, Trevor Fronius, and Justice Zimiles, “Alternatives to Youth Incarceration,” in Handbook of Issues in Criminal Justice Reform in the United States, ed. E. Jeglic and C. Calkins (Switzerland: Springer, Cham., 2021), 685–700, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-77565-0_34.

[6]Jon Schuppe, “Pennsylvania Seeks to Close Books on ‘Kids for Cash’ Scandal,” NBC News,August 12, 2015, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/pennsylvania-seeks-close-books-kids-cash-scandal-n408666; Human Rights for Kids, “2020 State Ratings Report: Human Rights Protections for Children in the U.S. Justice System,” (Washington DC: 2020), https://humanrightsforkids.org/wp-content/uploads/State-Ratings-Report_2020.pdf.

[7]Thomas Loughran, Edward P. Mulvey, Carol A. Schubert, and Laurie Chassin, “Differential Effects of Adult Court Transfer on Juvenile Offender Recidivism,” Law and Human Behavior 34, No. 6 (March 2010); Kristin Johnson, Lonn Lanza-Kaduce, and Jennifer Woolard, “Disregarding Graduated Treatment: Why Transfer Aggravates Recidivism,” Crime & Delinquency 57, No. 5 (September 2011): 756–777.

[8]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 20.

[9]M. Sickmund, T. J. Sladky, C. Puzzanchera, and W. Kang, Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement (EACJRP), National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2021, https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezacjrp/.

[10]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 17.

[11]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 16.

[12]Edward Mulvey, “Desistance from Crime Institutional Stays, and Development in Justice-involved Adolescents,” PowerPoint presentation Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force Projections,  2021, https://www.pacourts.us/Storage/media/pdfs/20210508/152738-file-11267.pdf; Elizabeth Cauffman et al., “Crossroads in Juvenile Justice: The Impact of Initial Processing Decision on Youth Five Years After First Arrest,” Development and Psychopathology 33, Special Issue 2 (May 2021): 700–713, https://sites.uci.edu/crossroadsinfo/publications/academic-publications/.

[13]Dana Shoenberg, “Lessons from Juvenile Justice Reforms Could Help Reduce Pandemics’ Impact on Confined Youth,” Pew Trusts, May 5, 2020, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2020/05/05/lessons-from-juvenile-justice-reforms-could-help-reduce-pandemics-impact-on-confined-youth.

[14]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 30–43.

[15]Cauffman et al., “Crossroads in Juvenile Justice.”

[16]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 15.

[17]Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), “Cost-Benefit Analysis For PCCD’s Evidence-Based Initiatives,” (Harrisburg: PCCD, May 2019), https://www.pccd.pa.gov/Juvenile-Justice/Documents/Cost-Benefit_Analysis_for_PCCDs_Evidence-based_Initiatives_FULL-Report_5-28-19.pdf. To the reader, just $5 million in seed funding could serve approximately 2,850 youth per year, or about 25% of youth who entered the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system for the first time in 2019.

[18]PCCD, “Cost-Benefit Analysis”; National Institute of Justice, “Program Profile: Positive Action,” Crime Solutions, June 16, 2011, https://crimesolutions.ojp.gov/ratedprograms/113.To the reader, $1 million in seed funding could serve approximately 15,873 youth per year, or about 87 percent of students who received school-based law enforcement referrals in 2019.

[19]Blueprints, “Multisystemic Therapy,” https://www.blueprintsprograms.org/programs/32999999/multisystemic-therapy-mst/.

[20]Blueprints, “Functional Family Therapy,” https://www.blueprintsprograms.org/programs/28999999/functional-family-therapy-fft/.

[21]Sens. Bartolotta and Williams, Senate Bill 1241, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2021&sind=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1241.

[22]Sens. Baker, Santarsiero, and Costa, Senate Bill 1227, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/bill_history.cfm?syear=2021&sind=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1227.

[23]Utah Department of Human Services, “Utah Realize Positive Outcomes with Juvenile Justice Reform,” January 8, 2021, https://hs.utah.gov/portfolio-item/utah-realizes-positive-outcomes-with-juvenile-justice-reform.

[24]Loughran et al., “Differential Effects of Adult Court Transfer”; Johnson et al., “Disregarding Graduated Treatment.”

[25]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 29; To the reader, direct file accounts for 80 percent of youth convicted in adult criminal court, with an average minimum sentence of 28 months.

[26]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 29.

[27]To the reader, nearly half of non-direct file adult prosecutions are for possession with intent to deliver drugs and theft-related offenses. Prior to 1995, homicide charges were the only way a youth could be tried automatically as an adult. Now charges include offenses such as robbery, aggravated assault, and voluntary manslaughter committed by a youth 15 or older, or any post-adult prosecution acts.

[28]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 29.

[29]Josh Weber, “Rethinking the Role of the Juvenile Justice System: Improving Youth’s School Attendance and Educational Outcomes,” (New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center, September 16, 2020), https://csgjusticecenter.org/publications/rethinking-the-role-of-the-juvenile-justice-system-improving-youths-school-attendance-and-educational-outcomes/.

[30]Sens. Bartolotta and Williams, Senate Bill 1240, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2021&sind=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1240.

[31]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 32; Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, “Pennsylvania Indigent Criminal Defense Services Funding and Caseloads,” (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania General Assembly, October 2021), http://lbfc.legis.state.pa.us/Resources/Documents/Reports/701.pdf.

[32]Sens. Baker, Santarsiero, and Costa, Senate Bill 1229, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billInfo/billInfo.cfm?sYear=2021&sInd=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1229.

[33]Samantha Harvell, Leah Sakala, and Andreea Matei, “Transforming Juvenile Probation: Restructuring Probation Terms to Promote Success,” (Washington DC: Urban Institute,April 2021), https://assets.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/PDF_urban-transformingjuvenileprobation-2021.pdf#page=2; Jessica Feierman, “The High Cost of Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System,” Juvenile Law Center, 2016, https://debtorsprison.jlc.org/documents/JLC-Debtors-Prison.pdf.

[34]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 23.

[35]Alex Piquero and Wesley Jennings, “Research Note: Justice System-Imposed Financial Penalties Increase the Likelihood of Recidivism in a Sample of Adolescent Offenders,” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, September 14, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1177/1541204016669213.

[36]Sens. Yaw and Cappelletti, Senate Bill 1233, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/billInfo/billInfo.cfm?syear=2021&sInd=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1233.

[37]Juvenile Law Center, “Debtors’ Prison for Kids,” https://debtorsprison.jlc.org/#!/map.

[38]Anne Teigen, “Far-Reaching Juvenile Justice Reform Enacted in Utah,” National Conference of State Legislatures, April 5, 2017, https://www.ncsl.org/blog/2017/04/05/far-reaching-juvenile-justice-reform-enacted-in-utah.aspx; Utah Department of Human Services, “Utah Realize Positive Outcomes.”

[39]Pew Trusts, “Re-Examining Juvenile Incarceration,”April 2015, https://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2015/04/reexamining_juvenile_incarceration.pdf.

[40]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 4. To the reader, up to half of residential placements stem from technical violations.

[41]Sens. Baker, Santarsiero, and Costa, Senate Bill 1228, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2021&sind=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1228.

[42]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 23–24.

[43]Sens. Baker, Santarsiero, and Costa, Senate Bill 1226, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billInfo/billInfo.cfm?sYear=2021&sInd=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1226.

[44]Restoration of Rights Project, “50-State Comparison: Expungement, Sealing and Other Record Relief,” October 2021 [Update], https://ccresourcecenter.org/state-restoration-profiles/50-state-comparisonjudicial-expungement-sealing-and-set-aside.

[45]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 24.

[46]Sens. Argall and Street, Senate Bill 1261, Pennsylvania State Legislature, https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/billinfo.cfm?syear=2021&sind=0&body=S&type=B&bn=1261.

[47]Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, “Report and Recommendations,” 11; Email correspondence from the Crime and Justice Institute. Resident reductions are based upon reduced admission to residential placement and limiting the length of stay, narrowing adult prosecution, expanding pre-petition diversion, and eliminating the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over contempt for nonpayment in a summary case.

[48]Jessica Barnett, “Does Justice Reinvestment Work?” The Commonwealth Foundation, July 1,2019, https://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/2019/07/01/does-justice-reinvestment-work/.