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Reducing the incarceration of youth of color in Berks County

Reducing the incarceration of youth of color in Berks County through structured decision-making and community-based alternatives

Models for Change support has assisted Berks County’s juvenile justice stakeholders and community leaders in the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Reduction Project in reducing the disproportionate detention and residential placement of African American and Latino youth.

Since 2007, Berks County has reduced its detention population by 45% without compromising public safety.  Today, eight fewer Latino youth, and eight fewer African-American youth sit in detention on any given day.  The County removed 59 fewer youth from their homes post-adjudication in 2008 than in 2007, and is on course for a much higher drop in 2009. 

The reductions result from:

- Data-Driven Analysis of Key Decision Points in Berks County
- Implementation of a Detention Assessment Instrument
- Creating an Evening Reporting Center
- Utilization of Alternatives to Out-of-Home Placements

Before deciding on policy and program changes, the County engaged in data collection and analysis.  Through interviews with a wide range of stakeholders, review of data, and a file review, the County gained insights about youth offending patterns, geographic concentrations of the youth served in the system, gaps in the continuum of available services, and lapses in translations for court-involved families.

Berks County has instituted the use of a Detention Assessment Instrument (DAI), a structured approach to detention decision making, the first of its kind in Pennsylvania.   Structured decision making tools such as the DAI ensure that detention decisions are objective, based upon the same criteria, and recorded in uniform ways.

In addition, the County established an Evening Reporting Center (ERC) in a neighborhood where many of the youth involved in the juvenile justice system live. The ERC provides an alternative to detention for youth awaiting court hearings who need additional supervision, but do not pose a danger to public safety.  Since the beginning of the program in December 2008, not one youth has missed a day of the ERC, and only one youth has committed a new offense.  All youth have come to court for scheduled court appearances.

Important to the County’s reduction of out of home placements is its change in philosophy, expanding its use of effective evidence-based programs delivered in youths’ homes. In 2007, the County introduced Multisystemic Therapy (MST), a proven effective, home-based intensive intervention, and also increased its scrutiny of probation officer requests for out of county placements.  These reforms have led to the County’s substantial decreases in placements and have dramatically decreased costs to taxpayers.  Thus far, 83% of the youth who completed the MST program have not reoffended and have remained in their homes.

Due to the reduction in the detention population, the County has permanently removed 24 beds from its secure detention program, altering the space to create a shelter for youth who cannot return home for safety reasons, and expanding a non-secure treatment program that provides programming to youth and allows them to leave the facility for jobs and other activities. 

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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.