Closing the Gender Equity Gap - Justice Solutions for Girls

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Defender Association of Philadelphia





Organization Overview:

The Defender Association of Philadelphia is an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides high-quality, client-centered legal representation, courtroom advocacy, and a connection to social services. Our practice strives to protect the Constitution, ensure a fair and equitable criminal justice system, and improve client outcomes. We provide multi-dimensional representation. By partnering with in-house social workers, paralegals, mitigation specialists, investigators, information technology specialists, and administrative staff, our attorneys are able to represent our clients as individuals and tailor our services to their unique needs. In addition to the direct legal services we provide, we also advocate for systemic change to improve legal system processes, reduce racial disparities and improve outcomes. We collaborate with our justice system partners and community stakeholders on a variety of issues to eradicate racial disparities and the culture of mass incarceration. These issues include: ending cash bail; reforming probation/parole practices; Supporting successful diversion programs; raising the age for youth prosecution; limiting entry points for incarceration of youth  and empowering communities to play a more active role in the criminal justice process.

Our office represents indigent adults and children in misdemeanor and felony criminal cases, as well as, children in the child welfare system. It represents approximately seventy percent of all persons arrested in Philadelphia. In 2017, the Defender Association represented 1928 child defendants in approximately 21,960 delinquent hearings. Our Child Advocacy Unit represented approximately 3700 children in dependency proceedings. The Defender Association of Philadelphia is committed to providing holistic representation to our Family Court clients- in dependency, delinquency and cross-over (both dependency and delinquency) courtrooms. It is also committed to expanding its advocacy to improve outcomes for juvenile justice and dependency involved youth.

Project Name:

Closing the Gender Equity Gap - Justice Solutions for Girls
Project Type: 
Policy Analysis

Project Overview:

Recognizing the potential trauma associated with juvenile arrests and detention, the Defender Association of Philadelphia has worked with juvenile justice stakeholders to decrease delinquency petitions from 5,769 in 2012 to 2,737 in 2016. During that time, delinquency placements decreased from 1,630 in 2012 to 956 in 2016. However, in our practice we are seeing that the trajectory of girls within the juvenile justice system is very different than that of boys.  Recognizing the special circumstances and needs of girls who come into the delinquency system, in 2018 the Defender Association submitted an application for Philadelphia to be chosen as a site for the Vera Institute of Justice’s Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration. In Fall 2018, Philadelphia was selected by Vera as a jurisdiction to create a taskforce to problem-solve issues specific to girls and create recommendations to end their incarceration.

In a data snapshot done recently, there were 437 girls in the Philadelphia delinquency system. Fifty-five (55) girls were in juvenile residential placements and 23 girls were sitting in local detention either awaiting residential placement or an adjudicatory hearing.  A closer examination of the girls who were being held in local detention showed that approximately seventy percent of the girls were awaiting placement into Residential Treatment Facilities (RTF’s) due to a mental health diagnoses. Justice stakeholders will agree that there is a disparity in options for girls in their continuum of care and options.  In addition, due to the limited placement options for girls, when placed, they are being sent to more secure placements, farther away from home separating them from family and/or community resources they may have. This problem is magnified with girls who have mental health diagnoses as there is a lack of services for girls and young women with mental health issues in the juvenile justice system.  In many instances, behaviors that are labeled as delinquent (fight or flight) are manifestations of their mental health issues that have not been treated appropriately. Traditional delinquent and dependent residential programs are not set up to service this population, therefore are they committed to state secure placements.

The over-arching goal of the project is to support the Defender Association's advocacy efforts so we can effectively decrease the number of girls in the dependent (foster care) system who have mental health diagnoses who enter the delinquent system (or deeper into the delinquent system) by conducting a national landscape of best practices. In addition, to conducting the landscape we need assistance in developing recommendations to keep girls with a mental health diagnosis out of traumatizing secure juvenile placements and detention centers and to develop sustainability plans for community based support services who provide services to young women involved in the delinquency and dependency system. For example, because traditional funding models pay per placement, our justice system involved girls have limited options because placements fluctuate and are not a sustainable stream of revenue for service providers.

This project will likely include vetting the possibility of establishing a specialty court serving Family Court clients who have mental health diagnoses; working with Defender staff to support city and system-wide taskforces seeking to reduce the use of secure placement for Philadelphia youth in both the dependent and delinquent systems by focusing on girls who have mental health issues; establishing data collection models to quantify the number of dependent girls who end of penetrating the delinquent system; developing recommendations for sustained funding streams for community based services so that young women have more robust alternatives to placement.

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326