Senator Baker Highlights Juvenile Justice Reforms for PA Bar Association’s Constitutional Review Commission

It is prudent and productive to periodically review Pennsylvania’s Constitution and assess the need for change. We should be sure that the provisions setting the operating rules and standards of conduct for each branch and level of government are sufficient for the problems of today and the challenges of tomorrow.

But here in Luzerne County, a potential constitutional convention is far from the most pressing concern. Your mission will be viewed through the prism of a county that has suffered a period of prolonged, unimaginable corruption.

Although many constructive changes in procedure have been adopted to improve the local juvenile justice operation, Luzerne County remains a crisis for the unified judiciary. It will be so until the culprits are sentenced and an array of reforms and remedies have been approved and implemented.

This corruption was not an indication of sclerosis of the Constitution. There is no conclusion that the corruption could have been avoided if only the Constitution were worded differently. Nor can it be chalked up to an obvious defect in policy. The method by which judges are selected is no predictor of judicial misconduct.

Two judges arrogantly decided to walk away from their oaths of office, trample the rights of thousands of juveniles, and substantially harm a well-regarded juvenile justice system for their personal benefit. The tragedy was compounded because so many individuals, involved in or connected to the system, went along to get along, instead of blowing the whistle on wrongdoing.

The extensive series of reform recommendations emerging from the work of the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice warrants priority. Nearly all of the recommendations fall below the level of Constitutional change. Rather, there are changes in law, in judicial rules, in administrative oversight. Many of these are designed to buttress existing constitutional rights, the denial of counsel being the pivotal wrong that enabled this corrupt scheme to unfold.

From the perspective of someone outside the legal structure, I am convinced that mandating legal counsel is a pivotal step to protect juveniles, and absolutely necessary to rebuild public confidence.

There are many helpful steps to complement this. For example, we have to insist that judges publicly disclose their dispositional reasoning in cases, so there is a record to review when practice strays seriously from the norm.

One of the largest failures was that of the Judicial Conduct Board, which turned out to be frustratingly dysfunctional when our citizens most needed the protection they were created to provide. Our Judiciary Committee Chairman, Senator Stewart Greenleaf, is taking the lead on crafting remedies for the JCB.

The first duty, of those within and without the legal profession, is to determine how to attain better adherence to ethical standards and the rules of professional conduct. The entire legal apparatus has to determine why so many failed to fulfill their responsibilities, when corruption could have been stopped so much earlier.

This simply is not a set of issues where we will see persistent public advocacy, beyond that offered by groups, such as the Juvenile Law Center and the Juvenile Court Judges Commission, with a long-time, demonstrated commitment to quality justice. To illustrate, a recent hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee had a packed room. But most people were there on behalf of animal rights, not the rights of juveniles. People expect us to act, not to need pressure to do what is right and necessary.

Again, it is commendable to be engaging in this forward-looking review of the Constitution and consideration of a convention. But this cannot divert attention from the immediacy of repairing a juvenile justice system that has been horribly stained, to the distress and detriment of the many fine people working in it. This obligation is not a question of Constitutional interpretation or insufficiency; it is a compelling civic responsibility.

Contact: Jennifer Wilson
(570) 675-3931

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