Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell yesterday announced that other states are following the commonwealth's lead as young offenders are paying restitution to victims and contributing hundreds of thousands of hours of community service in a system that is as concerned about victims as it about rehabilitating the young who have committed a crime.
"For the first time in history, the juvenile system places balanced attention on community protection, redeeming youth and restoring victims," Rendell said. "It is a system no longer shrouded in secrecy."
As an example, when a 14-year-old girl was paralyzed in a shooting at a church carnival in Pittsburgh, youth offenders built a wheelchair ramp so she could remain in her home.
In Lehigh County, young offenders are learning to repair old computers that are donated to low-income children.
At Loysville Youth Development Center in Perry County, young people in court-ordered placement work with Habitat for Humanity to build or restore homes.
Today, 1,200 people from around the country will gather in Harrisburg to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the legislation establishing balanced and restorative justice as the mission of Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system, a change that radically altered the focus of the now 105-year-old system.
The old system, while well-meaning, said Rendell in a release, focused primarily on the offender's supervision and rehabilitation. Victims were mostly observers, not participants. The Juvenile Court Judges' Commission, which proposed the changes and played a pivotal role in their passage, has worked with juvenile court judges, juvenile probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and victim advocates to help them understand and carry out the new mission of the juvenile system. It has been an evolving process.
"Ensuring that the offender accepts responsibility and takes action to repair the harm they have caused is at the heart of everything we do," said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission. "But we have also learned, time and again, that when these kids see that they have made a difference in the life of another person, it can be life-changing for them. As kids build new relationships with people who they believe care about them, they are at far less likely to commit new crimes."
"These youth are to be commended for trying to right the wrongs they have committed," Governor Rendell said. "But the real heroes here are those who have worked so hard to change the juvenile justice system so that young offenders aren't just participating in programs that change their behavior, but also seek to repair the harm they have caused.
Changes Paying Off
In 2005, youth offenders performed more than 536,000 hours of community service, paid $2.3 million in restitution to their victims, and contributed an additional $353,775 to the state Victim Compensation Assistance Program. In addition, 87 percent of the youth offenders whose cases were closed last year successfully completed their supervision, 94 percent completed their community service projects, and 85 percent made full restitution to their victims.
Dennis Maloney, one of the managers of the U.S. Department of Justice's Balanced and Restorative Justice Project, said Pennsylvania is a national leader in the juvenile justice reformation movement.
"I've been to all 50 states, and there's no doubt in my mind that Pennsylvania has gone the farthest in implementing balanced and restorative justice. Pennsylvania has not only done the work to change their system -- they've helped other states do the same," Maloney said. "When other states were doing serious damage to their juvenile justice systems, Pennsylvania served as the beacon."
More than 23 states have followed Pennsylvania's example and changed the missions of their juvenile justice systems to incorporate the principles of balanced and restorative justice -- some even passing laws that are identical to Pennsylvania's Juvenile Act.
Pennsylvania, said the release, through the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission, was the first to publish statewide Juvenile Justice System Outcome Measures relating to community protection, offender accountability and youth competency development.