The Juvenile Justice System In Pennsylvania: An Overview

The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice system has undergone many changes since the late 2000’s when the Commonwealth found itself in the middle of a national scandal knows as “Kids for Cash.” In Luzerne County, two judges were found to be receiving kick-backs for sentencing juvenile offenders, most of whom were not represented, to extended amounts of time in privatized juvenile detention centers. Since that time, juvenile justice laws in Pennsylvania have changed dramatically to allow for more protections for juveniles, while still keeping the community as a whole safe.

The juvenile justice system is a rehabilitative model, unlike the adult system which is punitive. The philosophy behind the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system is rooted in something known as “balanced and restorative justice.” This system is comprised of four main components:

  1. Individualism – this notion recognizes that each individual case and each juvenile is diverse and therefor, the system must look at each case differently.
  2. Community Protection – this prong is of course concerned with ensuring that the communities of Pennsylvania as a whole remain safe for all residents.
  3. Accountability – the goal here is to make sure that any juvenile who commits a crime is held accountable to both the victim and the state for his or her own actions.
  4. Competency Development – this final prong is dedicated to making sure that any juvenile who enters the systems, leaves with the proper tools to become a productive member of the community.

Under the current system, all juvenile offenders under the age of 14 are required to have a lawyer present at all delinquency proceedings. Juveniles between 14 and 17 can waive the right to have a lawyer present, but only in limited circumstances and only if the court approves the waiver. Any juvenile who makes an admission (the guilty plea equivalent) must go through an extended colloquy to prove that they had an opportunity to speak with a lawyer, and that they understand fully the consequences of the admission. As for courtroom procedure, juveniles are no longer allowed to be shackled in the courtroom, unless there is a serious threat to safety, which is determined by the court. There is currently legislation circulating to make it easier for juveniles to expunge minor offenses from their records.

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