Juvenile justice issues linger
An early spring thaw is spurring action to resolve several of the outstanding issues stemming from the juvenile justice scandal in the Luzerne County Courthouse.
It's been nearly two years since a special state commission recommended a series of changes to state law, judicial rules and legal practices to address abuses in the sentencing of juvenile offenders under former county judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan.
Ciavarella and Conahan are now serving terms in federal prison for their role in improperly sentencing juveniles to a for-profit juvenile detention facility.
The work of the Legislature to put new laws in place to guard against a future occurrence where juvenile offenders suffer at the hands of a corrupt court has lagged behind those prosecutions.
The Senate will vote for a third time on an important bill requiring judges to publicly explain their sentencing decisions for juvenile offenders when it returns to session March 26.
This is one of the recommendations made in May 2010 by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, the special body created under a state law enacted in 2009 within months after the Luzerne scandal broke wide open.
The bill will create an open juvenile case disposition record so that it will be easier to determine if sentences are being handed down disproportionate to the offense.
The Senate will have to agree with some changes made by the House last week to bring the legislation in line with a recently issued judicial order on the same topic, but that isn't expected to be an issue. Previously, the bill got caught in a legislative ping-pong between the two chambers over the issue of registering homeless Megan's law sex offenders. The Megan's law provision eventually became part of a separate law.
The third Senate vote will send this bill to Gov. Tom Corbett for signing, said Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., Luzerne County, the bill sponsor.
The House vote on the juvenile disposition bill was matched by Senate committee approval of a House-approved bill expanding the role of the state Juvenile Court Judges' Commission. This is in line with another one of the interbranch commission's recommendations.
The measure sponsored, by Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116, Butler Twp., Luzerne County, would strengthen the commission's ability to gather information and make recommendations to courts regarding the handling of juvenile cases.
"The measure gives the (juvenile court commission) a mandate to analyze juvenile court data carefully in order to recognize and correct problems within the system," said Toohil.
Also awaiting final action is a Senate-approved bill to require that counsel be present at juvenile delinquency hearings. Baker, the bill sponsor, considers mandatory legal representation key to preventing another scandal.
The House will probably amend this bill to bring it in line with a recent court rule requiring mandatory representation for juveniles under age 14, said Baker.
Having mandatory legal representation was not among the interbranch commission recommendations.
Still, it's important for lawmakers to follow through when a commission makes a series of recommendations on a topic as sensitive as juvenile justice, said Baker.
Otherwise, the public will conclude that all commission reports do is gather dust, she added.
(Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.