At House hearing, Philly students give their take on criminal justice reform

By: - September 11, 2019 1:58 pm

Francine Daniels, founder of the Philadelphia Community Youth Court, was flanked by some of her students as she testified Tuesday before a group of state House Democrats in Philadelphia. — Courtesy of Devon Allen, via the Philadelphia Tribune

By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — There is a growing movement in education in schools across Philadelphia to prioritize restorative justice over more punitive forms of punishment.

On Tuesday, in a first-of-its-kind hearing, at least a dozen students who participate in the Philadelphia Community Youth Court had the opportunity to tell state lawmakers about the successes they had seen as a result of the program.

“I’ve witnessed first-hand how beneficial and effective the program is,” said Central High School junior Nailah Phillips. “My experience with the youth court has motivated me to strongly believe that the number of youth courts should be increased in Pennsylvania.”

The hearing was organized by the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus and the House Democratic Policy Committee.

Founded at Imhotep Charter High School in 2012 by Francine Daniels, the PCYC’s mission is to work with students and the community to cut off the school-to-prison pipeline. The organization has eight youth courts across the city.

About 100 students participate, filling the roles of judge, bailiff, jurors and youth advocates, Daniels said. They are trained in standard courtroom procedures for several months before they can participate, and they must maintain an A or B average to be in the program. About 40 students are waiting to be trained, she said.

Students who violate school disciplinary policies or commit other minor infractions stand trial before a court of their peers, admit their guilt, and the student judges and jurors determine what their sentence will be. Sentencing focuses on restorative measures, such as community service.

Each court costs approximately $50,000 to operate. Daniels says the program is mostly self-funded with a “few contributors.”

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The program has been “tremendously successful” at Universal Institute Charter School since it was implemented in the 2017-18 school year, Principal Jeffrey Williams said.

“No, it is non-punitive,” Williams said.” But the students are given the opportunity to repair whatever damage they have done. They repair the hurt they have caused and there is so much power coming from that. It’s a powerful form of juvenile justice reform to have someone really understand what they have done, that they’ve caused pain, but that they can make amends for it.”

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Williams told the story of a standout student who was found to have had a knife in his possession during a random school search. The school’s existing code of conduct would have resulted in expulsion and possibly a criminal record.

However, during a PCYC hearing, it was brought out that the student was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because he had been robbed weeks earlier. The student lived with his single mother and younger siblings. He slept with a knife for protection out of fear that another robbery might occur. The student played saxophone and was active in his church.

“The restorative actions in this case included professional support for his PTSD and volunteering at a local nursing home where he played music for the residents,” said Williams, adding that the student graduated and continued to play at the nursing home long after it was mandatory.

Williams said his school had 160 student suspensions in the 2016-17 school year. The number of suspensions dropped to 90 in the 2017-18 school year (the first year of the program), and down to 60 in the 2018-19 school year.

State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said the idea to have the students testify on Tuesday came out of a conversation he had with Daniels at a local supermarket about a month ago.

“They are at the heart of the situation,” he said. “They know what is going on. They know exactly what feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. So it just makes great sense to give them a role in this.”

John N. Mitchell is a reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. 

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