The number of accused juvenile delinquents taken from their homes by court order dropped more than 29 percent from 2007 to 2011, government data shows.
While the trends are encouraging, advocates note that Pennsylvania had plenty of ground to make up.
Through 2010, the most recent year in which national data is available, Pennsylvania had the highest rate of juveniles in out-of-home detention, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice. And while most other big states had seen the number of juveniles placed in out-of-home detention decrease over the decade leading up to 2010, the number went up in Pennsylvania.
All of this occurred as the number of juveniles being arrested decreased.
Then came the kids-for-cash scandal in which two Luzerne County judges were convicted of taking bribes in return for sentencing juvenile offenders to detention facilities, in many cases, for minor infractions.
It was a wakeup call for the court system and the Legislature, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center, the organization that led the fight to shed light on the scandal.
The state made several significant remedies to better protect the rights of children:
•All children are presumed indigent.
•In almost all cases children must be represented by an attorney.
•Judges must put on the record why they think that placing a child in detention outside the home is the best alternative.
•And there are new ways for attorneys to quickly appeal if they think a child has been handled inappropriately.
•In a related measure, the state also has barred the use of shackles for juvenile offenders in court.
The absence of any chance to quickly appeal a judge’s decision was exposed by the kids-for-cash scandal, Schwartz said.
“If you were placed (in detention) for three months, you would be released by the time any appeal could have taken place,” he noted.
Now, attorneys can make an almost “instant appeal” if they think a judge has stepped out of bounds.
The changes are “quite dramatic,” Schwartz said.
It is a sentiment echoed by James Anderson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission.
“There is a lot of really exciting work,” Anderson said. “Decisions about kids are better informed and their rights are protected better.”
Because all young offenders have attorneys assigned to them, there is an immediate safeguard that was absent in Luzerne County.
“Faced with a horrible scandal, we saw it as an opportunity to look at the whole system,” Anderson said.
The Administrative Office of the Courts estimated that increased use of community service for juvenile offenders translated into $3.9 million worth of volunteer service across the Commonwealth last year.
More than 15,700 youth worked a total of 536,808 hours, with the nearly-$4-million figure based on minimum wage.
When juveniles go into the justice system charged with a crime, judges have the discretion to divert them from court into these programs.
“Community service, whether court-ordered or as an alternative to formal court intervention, is another great example of an initiative where the judiciary can improve lives and save tax dollars as justice is pursued,” Chief Justice Ronald Castille said.