About the Children: Policy Updates from Pennsylvania

While a lot has been happening this week in the news, not much has been happening in the legislatures regarding children or child welfare.  Here are the few items I found.

PA

State House

Nothing that I saw.

State Senate

 

SB 942 – This was introduced and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Halloween. This one is weird and I’m only 75% sure I understand what it’s saying.  It was introduced as a bill to establish a policy of providing legal representation for people in cases of civil forfeiture, even if those people cannot afford said legal representation.  That’s all well and good, but the bill has since become more focused on harsher punishments for under 18s who are found guilty of murder, murder of an unborn child, or murder of an officer of the law.  I read into the bill a little, and it actually establishes life sentences without parole for (35 to life for children 15 or older, 25 to life for children younger than 15) who commit these crimes, even if it is a first offense.  Now, the law does state that, before approving a life sentence for a child, the court must take certain “age related factors of the defendant” into consideration, namely “Age, Mental capacity, Maturity, The degree of criminal sophistication exhibited by the defendant, The nature and extent of any prior delinquent or criminal history, including the success or failure of any previous attempts by the court to rehabilitate the defendant, Probation or institutional reports, Other relevant factors.”

I have some pretty strong feelings that this is a bad idea, but I personally have a pretty negative view of the criminal justice system and especially life sentences, and I acknowledge that you all may not share those.  However, this could affect our work, since, as we are all aware, children in foster care are significantly more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system either as children or as adults.  While it may sound like these offenses, which all include the word murder, shouldn’t be taken lightly and should be punished within the full extent of the law, I do want to point out two key points.  1) There are always edge cases, even in murder trials, of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and depending on the context of the case (the whims of the judge, the quality of the defense attorney, the political climate, the visibility of the case to the public, etc.) “justice” may not be the focus in sentencing.  Children who are wards of the state either through TPR or through lack of parental involvement, are often not given a fair shake in courts, due to their history of involvement with the law the the stigma attached to parentless children.  This bill proposes nothing to change that.  2) Studies have shown that teenagers who spend decades in prison typically do not thrive once they are released; they are raised by the prison system and struggle to function outside of it.  So even if these children sentenced 25 or 35 to life get out of prison in the shortest time possible, nothing is currently being done in society to help them take steps to become productive and healthy citizens.  This bill proposes nothing to change that, either.

So I would urge you to consider contacting your state senator and asking them for more information on this bill and present your opinion, whether it is similar to mine or not.  This bill is somehow managing to masquerade as a bill to provide attorneys to civil forfeiture defendants who cannot afford them, but it is more than that.  There’s no telling how far it will get in the senate or in the bill-to-law process, so keep your eye on it.


USA

House

HR 515 – This is a little different than the legislation I usually put in here, because it was enacted at the end of 2015, but a particular controversial clause was upheld in a federal court and is now being enforced, which is big news (not that you can tell from what’s actually on the news right now…).  This is P.L. 114-119, also known as International Megan’s Law.  There are a lot of important things in this law, which is aimed at cutting down on the demand for and viability of child sex trafficking both internationally and domestically.  However, one of the things it does is require all people who are registered as sex offenders against minors to get a new passport that has a special stamp on the back that reads “The bearer was convicted of a sex offense against a minor, and is a covered sex offender pursuant to (U.S. law).”

This is a law now, so there’s not a whole lot we can do but watch as its consequences begin to take shape, but I didn’t want to go without mentioning it.  I think we’re all aware of the unreliability of the national sex offender registry, so this extra step of drawing attention to sex-offender status is troubling.  Not to mention, states have different policies as to the length of time a person is labeled a sex-offender: California sex-offenders are registered for life, while most other states drop the requirement if an offender can show rehabilitation after a certain number of years. The federal law, however, would require passport stamps for those offenders as well.

Senate

Nothing that I saw.

That’s all the legislative news I have at the moment.  But, this week’s uplifting news report is close to my heart, if home really is where the heart is, anyway.  “Chicago gun violence down for 8th straight month, police say.”

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