How can we keep young people prone to getting into trouble out of jail yet also live in a safe society?
Two experts discussed restorative justice with the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee Monday at a hearing in the Concord Township Building.
Rep. Craig Willaims (R-Chadds Ford) enlisted panelists Greg Volz and Liam Power to discuss juvenile justice.
Volz, director of Youth Courts and a criminal justice instructor at Harcum College, said the goal is for kids to become good citizens and to shut down the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
He has run Youth Courts in the Chester Upland School District, Norristown Area High School, and many others.
The Youth Courts can keep students from being expelled or suspended and also keep them from entering the criminal justice system. He wants to see more Youth Courts in the justice system and schools.
He said that kids as young as fifth grade can get involved in Youth Courts, where the youngsters decide on their peers’ guilt and punishment. While Volz has set up Youth Courts at many area high schools, younger kids are often ideal candidates for the Youth Courts, he said.
“They’re still optimistic, excited to learn about the law,” he said.
Power currently chairs the Education Task Force for the state Office of Advocacy and Reform and spoke about the trauma-informed Pennsylvania plan.
Power said his task force has been working to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline through restorative practices, thereby preventing young people from getting involved in more serious crimes.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic increased preexisting trends of retirements of educators, mental health experts, counselors, and others, creating an increasing demand for these professions coupled with workforce shortages. He said these factors have made kids more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system.
“Mental health is directly correlated with criminal justice involvement,” said Power. “With 1 in 4 people with a mental health condition being arrested in their lifetime. And 7 in 10 youth in the juvenile justice system, having a diagnosed mental health condition.”
A multifaceted approach is needed, including restorative practices and trauma-informed practices.
He said that youth courts can create empathy with law enforcement if they are involved.
Restorative practices also improve situations and reduce the criminal justice system’s involvement. A workforce development program can also help and provide people with the skills to earn “family-sustaining wages,” he said.
While Power did not go into detail about restorative justice practices, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, those programs use trained facilitators to bring the “responsible party” and the “harmed party” together with family and community members to “determine the appropriate response” and repair the damage.
“We need to fund off-ramps from the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Power. People are beginning to understand the effect of trauma on children.
Williams said he lost his brother to addiction in 2020. He said he would ask him why he couldn’t stop (using drugs). But that was the wrong question.
Later, he visited the George Hill Correctional Facility. Williams asked inmates going through drug rehab if they remembered the day they began to use. One told him the right question would be if he remembered the day his mother’s boyfriend sexually assaulted him.
“Since then, I’ve thought many times what it was (that) my brother went through,” he said. “I never asked that question, and I wish I had that opportunity back.”
“This idea of trauma-informed care, as I’ve become more and more an advocate for it locally, with our institutions, trying to bring it here,” said Willaims.
“How do we help a young man (because, more often than not, it’s young boys) understand his ‘why’ for his behavior? If we can help him or her get to their ‘why,’ maybe they can cure the behavior.”
“We need to provide off-ramps,” he said. “And I think that’s where we can be as a matter of statewide policy, which is absolutely rigid in our enforcement of the law, cracking down on crime and still providing off-ramps. We can hold those two thoughts simultaneously, protecting our community and helping people reform or restore, helping them understand their why.”
Power said, “Trauma-informed care and accountability do go hand in hand and are mutually inclusive in that respect. We must live in a place with accountability. We must enforce laws. But where trauma or past experiences create roadblocks in the minds of youth, the only way out of that, the only path forward is through building trust.”
He added, “We have to take the time, we have to see, we have to be human, we have to share sometimes of ourselves and be prepared to be vulnerable. When a youth trusts you, they will begin to believe you’re there to help them. And when they finally feel that sense of safety…everything will come through the way it needs to…Trust is the underpinning of this entire process from beginning to end.”