With a Billionaire’s Backing, Philadelphia Aims to Remake Its Juvenile Justice System

Glenn R. McGloughlin/shutterstock

Glenn R. McGloughlin/shutterstock

We report often on funder-driven efforts to reform the adult and juvenile justice systems. A range of initiatives and projects have taken aim at reducing incarceration rates and reforming pretrial justice, among other measures.

In Philadelphia, city and police officials took a look at their juvenile justice system and asked: What if we could reform it by keeping more youths out of it? Through early intervention by social services to address such factors as poverty, homelessness and neighborhood violence, first-time youthful offenders could receive needed help that greatly reduces their odds of becoming more serious offenders.

What began as an idea from a pair of Philadelphia police officers recently led to a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop the Juvenile Justice Hub, a program aimed at transforming the nature of youths’ encounters with police. Philadelphia was one of nine “Champion Cities” receiving Bloomberg grants in late 2018 under the funder’s Mayors Challenge, an initiative designed to empower U.S. city leaders to craft solutions to their most pressing problems. Issues to be addressed by the nine champion cities range from homelessness and opioid addiction to climate change and—in the case of the City of Brotherly Love—juvenile justice.

Typically, in Philadelphia (and in many other cities), youthful offenders arrested by police are taken to a local station, where they are placed in a holding area while police contact parents or guardians, check for outstanding warrants, and make decisions about whether to refer youths to juvenile authorities for formal legal proceedings. In many cases, the youths, especially first-time offenders or those with minor offenses, are released with no charges filed—but also with little or no intervention to prevent future encounters with law enforcement. The lack of intervention means issues such as poverty, family dysfunction and neighborhood violence remain unaddressed, increasing the likelihood of future offending.

The Philadelphia Citizen reported that the juvenile justice hub had its genesis with two officers in the Philadelphia Police Department’s strategic planning division. They recognized that factors such as poverty and violence that drive youthful misbehavior are often better addressed through treatment rather than juvenile justice proceedings. Working with community partners led to the idea of a hub that placed police and social services for youth in the same location, with the goal of making juvenile encounters with police less intimidating and fewer kids becoming repeat offenders.

Bloomberg Philanthropies was impressed with Philadelphia’s vision for the Juvenile Justice Hub. “The proposal resonated in a really strong way,” Katie Duda of the government innovations team at Bloomberg told the Philadelphia Citizen. “It’s top of mind for so many cities and one in which there is real potential for disruption and change for families, juveniles, and the city.”

Although criminal justice issues have not been an area of emphasis for Bloomberg the way they are for such funders as MacArthur and Arnold Ventures, the funder’s Government Innovation initiative encourages cities to tackle a range of issues aimed at improving quality of life, including crime. As juvenile justice systems increasingly strive to make greater use of diversion programs while reserving detention and adjudication for more serious offenders, it will be interesting to see how Philadelphia’s Juvenile Justice Hub unfolds.