VIDEO: ‘You have to invest in communities, not prisons’: Former juvenile offenders call for reform

October 20, 2022

DECEMBER 14, 2021

William Bentley doesn’t want to be judged by his own worst mistake. But Bentley, who went to jail when he was 15, says he often finds himself fighting that perception of his former self, even as he presses for reforms to Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system.

“I speak for the lowest voices that we lost due to the labels and statistics that we placed upon them,” Bentley, a youth leader with the Care, Not Control Campaign, said during a Tuesday news conference at the state Capitol. “But everybody don’t get that chance. Everybody won’t get them second opportunities.”

Bentley was one of several formerly incarcerated individuals who spoke during the news conference held in the shadow of this year’s Capitol Christmas tree. But as Alexandria Rivera, another organizer noted, the 3,000 young people currently serving time in Pennsylvania’s penal system won’t be home for the holidays this year.

“What policymakers need to understand is that placing children behind bars does nothing but harm and traumatize them,” Rivera, of Philadelphia, said. “We’re here today to show that there’s a better path forward — one that provides young people with the support and resources they need to thrive.”

The young activists called on state lawmakers to implement the recommendations of Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice Task Force. Gov. Tom Wolf convened the panel two years ago in response to reports of abuse of incarcerated young people across the commonwealth. The task force released its recommendations in June, but so far, legislation to enact them has not been introduced in the General Assembly.

On Tuesday, the young activists called for a number of reforms. They include:

  • “[Ending] the carceral state for youth in Pennsylvania
  • “[Divesting] from youth incarceration and reinvest in communities
  • “Always treat children as children
  • “[Providing] holistic support to young people as they await release  
  • “[Transforming] probation and eliminate fines and fees
  • “[Providing] holistic support to young people returning home
  • “[Releasing] youth in light of the heightened dangerousness of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The vast majority of the 3,000 children are bigger than their worst mistakes,” Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, a reform advocate, told the Capital-Star. “We’re failing our children.”

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