Written by The New Pittsburgh Courier
Following the revelations that two Luzerne County judges had conspired to sentence juveniles who had committed minor infractions to a private jail for kickbacks, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff was named to the commission empanelled to devise statewide reforms of the juvenile justice system.
During that process, he realized similar reforms could be enacted in Allegheny County to ensure no juveniles are mistreated. As a result, President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel tasked Woodruff to co-chair The Allegheny County Commission on Juvenile Justice. He issued its recommendations Nov. 26.
“People say, ‘it can’t happen here.’ Well, it happened there,” said Woodruff. “Something led to that being able to happen. We have to protect our kids because my colleagues and I consider them our kids.”
Along with McDaniel, Woodruff was joined by several of his judicial colleagues for the release of his report, some of whom served with him on the county commission, like Common Pleas Administrative Judge Kathryn Hens-Greco and his co-chair attorney Cynthia K. Stoltz.
Hens-Greco said the Luzerne County scandal “shocked all of us.”
“One girl, a promising A-student, was sentenced to six months for giving a police officer the finger. That case would never have even seen a judge in Allegheny County,” she said. “It was so extraordinary that Dwayne began studying to see if any of the conditions that led to that existed here.”
State Supreme Court Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, who also attended, praised Woodruff and the commission for their work.
“Allegheny County is the first to take on this work, and to measure its performance,” she said. “We are pleased to see this initiative taken by the county.”
McDaniel said the commission’s recommendations centered on five core values: integrity, fairness, compassion, professionalism and accountability.
“As a result, all of our judges have agreed to 12 hours of continuing legal education per year including judicial ethics training,” she said. “We are gratified to Allegheny County already meets most of the recommendations and we are committed to making sure we ultimately meet them all.”
In addition to the continuing education, the report also makes recommendations related to 19 other facets of the juvenile justice system including judicial and attorney discipline, juvenile prosecutors, probation officers and defense attorneys, appellate rights and review, court hiring practices, and continuing Supreme Court oversight.
The report also calls for school districts to improve communications with their local police offices, so each understands what level of misbehavior requires police intervention; calls for increasing the number of juvenile defenders in the Public Defenders Office from 11 to 19; and recommends that no juveniles be shackled in court, which the county has already implemented.
“Allegheny County has been recognized as a leader in juvenile justice and our system is headed in the right direction,” said Woodruff. “We have some issues but the majority of these recommendations are already in place. One, that judges dispositional (sentencing) reasoning should be on the record, we’re still not fully compliant, but we’re getting there.”