By Robert Schwartz, Esq., Executive Director
Juvenile Law Center
The April 2, 2009 edition of Democracy Rising PA News raises important points about the Luzerne County scandal, but it is off the mark in its characterization of the Juvenile Court Judges' Commission.
When we at Juvenile Law Center which has pursued the Luzerne County case for years suspected that large numbers of youth in the County were waiving their right to counsel, it was to JCJC that we turned for data. JCJC collects enormous amounts of data from counties, and annually publishes a report that is a mix of county-specific and aggregate statewide data. Juvenile Law Center asked for waiver-of-counsel data from Luzerne, and JCJC unflinchingly provided it, taking the bold step of providing an affidavit that supported Juvenile Law Center's April, 2008 application to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. This was at a time when few others were willing to take risks in the case. (Others who were willing to step forward, as Democracy Rising PA notes, were the Department of Public Welfare and the Attorney General's Office, both of which filed amicus briefs in support of Juvenile Law Center's April, 2008 application.)
Democracy Rising PA implies that JCJC had the power to stop what was happening in Luzerne. Unfortunately, JCJC has a great deal of influence, but lacks the power that many people think it has. JCJC is in the executive branch. While the state Supreme Court nominates Commission members, it is the Governor who appoints them. Commission staff are executive branch employees.
This is the 50th anniversary of JCJC's creation as an advisory body that sets standards, collects and publishes data and administers a small grant-in-aid program. JCJC has a tiny staff, it is severely underfunded, but it has enormous influence because of its knowledge, integrity and skills. JCJC clearly should have more capacity and power to analyze and publish more data like those that helped Juvenile Law Center uncover the Luzerne County scandal. For that it will need more funding, rather than the cut that the Governor's Office has proposed.
When the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy published, in 2005, "Keystones for Reform," it singled out JCJC as one of the reasons that Pennsylvania has a national reputation for juvenile justice excellence. For years, JCJC has promoted good policies for Pennsylvania's youth. Following years of litigation in the early 1980's, JCJC became Juvenile Law Center's partner in reform of juvenile detention practices. It has fought to keep Pennsylvania as a state that doesn't lock up status offenders (truants or runaways). JCJC persuaded the General Assembly in 1995 to avoid draconian laws that would treat too many youth as adult criminals. Commission staff has diplomatically educated local judges to prevent and end futile and harmful "scared straight" programs.
Also in 2005, on the occasion of Juvenile Law Center's 30th anniversary celebration, we honored JCJC Executive Director Jim Anderson as the most effective Pennsylvania juvenile justice leader of the prior 30 years. In my remarks, I observed:
When we at Juvenile Law Center confront an intractable problem in one of the state's 67 counties, it is to Jim Anderson that we usually turn. It is because of Jim that we can avoid litigation, or skip going to the press. He solves problems. And he does that in a remarkably effective way, with unerring instincts, and unmatched decency.
There is no obligation for county judges to heed JCJC, and in this latest scandal, the Luzerne County judges were outside its orbit. There are ways to give JCJC more authority, but that would entail additional staff and technological capacity. JCJC, as I understand it, would welcome the resources to be able to collect, analyze and publish real-time data that would expose future Luzerne Counties. We who have long worked with the Commission would welcome Democracy Rising PA's help in getting JCJC more power, more capacity and more tools.
Clearly we owe the JCJC and Executive Director James Anderson an apology, which we gladly extend.
But that still begs the question of responsibility for three branches of government failing to prevent what happened to more than 5,000 children.
Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed cutting the JCJC's budget by $125,000 next year after cutting $163,000 this year. These numbers are roughly equivalent to the salary and benefits being paid to former state Rep. Dan Surra and PR guru Ken Snyder, including the overhead of the agency with whom Snyder subcontracts.
- Will Rendell champion the JCJC like he champions Surra and Snyder?
- Why does the JCJC have too little when lawmakers have far too much? Will lawmakers give up a tiny portion of their $200 million surplus for the JCJC?
- Will the Supreme Court publicly support the JCJC's budgetary needs?
Remember: Only you can keep democracy rising!