CHESTER COUNTY ATTORNEY DISCUSSES COURT DECISION THAT GIVES ADDED PROTECTION TO JUVENILE OFFENDERS

A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision has lead to additional protections being given to juvenile offender who get in legal trouble. These protections mostly pertain to the proper dissemination of juvenile offender information and the prevention of the school’s ability to take disciplinary measures for when a child gets in trouble off the school premises. The changes and additions can be seen in the revised version of Pennsylvania’s Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure, specifically in the form of revisions to Rules 160 and 163 and the new Rule 161.

This decision comes at a time when many highly publicized recent situations where Pennsylvania high school students were forced to miss their graduations or were suspended for various off-campus infractions, including possession of drug paraphernalia.

Rule 163, which deals with the release of juvenile information to schools, will now disallow school officials from taking any disciplinary action, with the potential to be found in contempt, if not followed. This includes the inability to suspend, expel, or otherwise block students from taking part in school activities, particularly graduation. Put simply, off-campus legal issues are not to be used against the juvenile for disciplinary reasons.

The new provision, Rule 161, sets forth that juvenile probation offices have discretion to disseminate portions of their files to the juvenile, service providers, placement facilities and court staff when serving that child. It also adds needed language about how electronic records may be inspected, which he said provides safeguards against the information adversely affecting employment opportunities and credit checks. Electronic records will be subject to inspection and copying only pursuant to a court order.

All of these rule changes and additions are extremely beneficial to the youth of the state. It allows for the protection of juveniles against addition, unnecessary punishments, while protecting their personal information.

The state of Pennsylvania has come under heat in the recent months over their handling of juvenile offenders, with the particularly divisive issue of allowing juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without probation being a hot topic. Although not close to the severity of that major issue, the revision of juvenile rules has given minors an impartial and equitable opportunity to learn for their mistakes.

Having additional school disciplinary action is akin to receiving both state and federal convictions, where a person is punished twice for a single offense. The difference is that a person would have broken two separate laws, whereas a student would have only broken one. If you look at it this way, the previous reporting process would in fact grant an institution, which was not connected in any way to the offense, the authority to punish individuals, simply because they attend that school. This was inherently unfair and forced children to deal with multiple, unrelated punishments. In fact, even if the minor had a pennsylvania juvenile defense attorney who helped get the other charges dropped, the prior rules would have allowed the schools discretion to punish separately.

If the offense was not committed on school property, then there is absolutely no reason or justification to involve an educational institution with a juvenile infraction that happened off school property. This not only disproportionately punishes the student, but it also isolates them as troublemakers and juvenile offenders, obstructing their ability to complete tasks at school. Juveniles are still growing into their body and minds, and such severe sanctions have the potential to lead to deleterious effects and consequences that could stay with the individuals, making it more difficult for them to move forward in life and accomplish their goals.

The Supreme Court must be praised for their decision and it is the hope of all individual and families in the state of Pennsylvania that they are treated fairly and not handed down additional punishments for off-campus offenses.

The new provisions are set to go into effect in August of 2012.

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