HARRISBURG, PA − October 18, 2022 − Senators Tim Kearney (D – Delaware/Chester), and John Kane (D – Chester/Delaware) recently announced plans to introduce legislation to establish a five-year pilot program for school-based youth courts. The School-Based Youth Court Pilot Program would look to improve school environments, enhance student educational outcomes, and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in Pennsylvania.
Common in many states’ juvenile justice systems, youth courts are a diversion program where youth are tried by a jury of their peers for minor violations and offenses. Participating youth learn and then implement the court process and emphasize conflict resolution and sanctions that address the violation while avoiding suspensions or police involvement.
“Senator Kane and I believe that there are better ways to resolve conflict and put students on the right track after misconduct,” said Senator Kearney. “Research tells us that diversion programs like youth courts can have positive effects on student-behavioral outcomes and their future success. This legislation creates an alternative option to discipline before law enforcement is involved, perhaps giving the youth the much-needed second opportunity to make better decisions.”
“We know that peer influence plays a huge part in the decisions and development of our youth,” said Senator Kane. “Youth Court will be a great way for teens and young adults to interact and communicate in an environment that will enhance their critical thinking, accountability and ultimately lead them to better choices down the line.
“Youth Court combats the school to prison pipeline that has afflicted so many young lives in our Commonwealth. This program will break the cycle that has failed past generations and help save our youth of today,” Senator Kane shared. “When we provide effective programs such as Youth Court, it allows us to engage our youth while they are still in school and developing, bringing the ones closest to them the opportunity to help them choose better futures.”
Additionally, the legislation would establish a Youth Court Resource Center to assist schools in the development of youth court programs and other restorative justice measures, and:
- Provide annual grants to school entities – including public middle and high schools, public charter schools, school districts, or intermediate units
- Help with the development of partnerships to aid youth courts, or evaluate program outcomes
- Provide critical data to measure the efficacy of youth courts as a trauma-informed approach to improve disciplinary and educational outcomes for participating students
Mounting concerns about the effects of punitive student disciplinary policies that emphasize suspension, expulsion, and referrals to law enforcement, underscores the need for this legislation. Exclusionary discipline like suspensions alienate students from their peers and school, reduce learning outcomes, and increase the risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system. Youth Courts create a unique process that keeps students in school, make students take personal responsibility for their misconduct, and uses positive peer pressure rather than exclusion to resolve conflict.
Senators Kearney and Kane are optimistic that the program, once implemented, can help to create an environment where school-aged youth who have made poor choices are held accountable for their actions while being supported to make better decisions in the future.
The full co-sponsorship memo is available here.