DN Opinion: Philly's next DA must address broken juvenile justice system

The seven Democrats running for District Attorney appear in a debate last month sponsored by WHYY and the NAACP.

THE District Attorney has the chance to redeem lives – and the power to destroy them. Nowhere is this power more evident than when it comes to our youth.

Our youth have long been mistreated in the criminal justice system. Pennsylvania has the shameful distinction of having sentenced the most juveniles to mandatory sentences of life without parole; most of them come from Philadelphia. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such sentences unconstitutional last year. And we continue to automatically charge certain young people as adults and place them in adult jails while they await trial. For boys in adult jails, solitary confinement is likely; for girls, who are too few to house in a dedicated pod, solitary confinement is inevitable.

The renewed public focus on challenging mass incarceration should have us asking the next district attorney where he or she stands on juvenile justice. Each year, the DA's Office prosecutes thousands of young people. The next DA has a responsibility to think holistically about the rehabilitation and well-being of our young people.

The research is clear: prison is no place for children, and yet each year, hundreds of Philadelphia youth are charged and treated as adults. Jails and prisons are neither safe nor rehabilitative for children. After spending months or even years behind bars, our young people, robbed of their youth, re-enter society with little preparation and are essentially locked out of the workforce. They lose access to many options for stable housing and public services. Many never recover.

The devastating impact on a young person's life cannot be tolerated by a society that values justice. Take the case of New Yorker Kalief Browder.

When he was 16, Kalief was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. Kalief languished on Rikers Island for three years, two of them in solitary confinement. The charges against him were eventually dropped and he was never brought to trial. Two years after his release, and struggling with the trauma of incarceration, Kalief took his own life at age 22.

Kalief's story is not exceptional. Lengthy pre-trial detention for people who can't afford bail and abusive use of solitary confinement, happen routinely in Philadelphia. Today, children as young as 13 are awaiting trial on State Road rather than in a juvenile facility, where they have a chance at counseling, education and rehabilitation in the meantime.

We have an obligation to change the system. In this election, we have the chance to do it by demanding that our next district attorney reject policies that ensnare thousands of young people – particularly black and brown youth – in an inhumane system, and instead put Philadelphia on a path toward true juvenile justice.

This is much more than lip service. The next district attorney will have vast discretion over every phase of the juvenile justice process, from investigation to charging to trial to sentencing and supervision.

If we want to see real reform for young people, the next district attorney must lead the way.

We look forward to hearing the candidates' positions on these issues at Tuesday's forum, co-hosted by leading advocates for children and youth, including the Juvenile Law Center, Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Public Citizens for Children & Youth, the Education Law Center, Black Clergy of Philadelphia, and Youth Art and Self-empowerment Project.

Helen Gym and Kenyatta Johnson are both members of City Council.

The authors are co-hosting a DA candidates forum on Juvenile Justice on Tuesday, May 2, 4-6 p.m. at Benjamin Franklin High School, Broad and Spring Garden Streets.