Senators Push Bi-Partisan Juvenile Justice Reforms

HARRISBURG May 12, 2022 – Legislation to strengthen Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system is set for action according to Senator Lisa Baker (R-20), Senator Steve Santarsiero (D-10) and Senator Jay Costa (D-43), who have been working to implement reforms needed to improve outcomes for youth, families, and communities, with a continued focus on protecting public safety.

The Senators are advancing a package of bills intended to achieve taxpayer savings that can then be reinvested to implement more effective research-based policies. The effort includes changes to standardize the expungement process and shorten the timeline for eligibility in certain cases, and provide funding for alternative sentencing and juvenile defense expenses.

“Making substantial and impactful changes to long-held policies requires comprehensive examination and focus,” Senator Lisa Baker said.  “It is critical that we hold juveniles accountable for their actions, but also put in place policies that offer the chance for positive growth. From the beginning, the issue of reforming Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system has been a joint, bi-partisan effort. No matter if young people live in rural, suburban, or urban areas of our state, the system and processes in place should be fair and equipped with the tools to strengthen families and reduce recidivism rates.”

Last year, Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice Task Force issued its Juvenile Justice Task Force Report containing 35 policy recommendations following a comprehensive review of current practices. The 30-member panel assessed the state’s juvenile justice system and reviewed data from court and state agencies and examined how current practices can better align with what research says works best. 

Senator Lisa Baker, who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee and co-chaired the Juvenile Justice Task Force, said a public hearing will be held on May 23 to give proponents and opponents a final chance to comment on the reforms before full committee action.

“These bills will help ensure that all juveniles are treated fairly during all stages of their interactions with the justice system,” Senator Steve Santarsiero said. “The justice system should not create a permanent impediment to the success of the juvenile offender after their debt to society has been paid.  Together, this package of bills will help youth in the juvenile justice system move smoothly and justly through the process and give them a chance at success in the future.”

“I am proud to join my senate colleagues on the introduction of these bills as well as other recommendations of the task force being introduced,” said Juvenile Justice Task Force co-chair Senator Jay Costa. “It is the beginning of a process that will include the review of the proposals by several committees as well as both houses of the General Assembly.  I look forward to working with all of the sponsors, task force members and other stakeholders on improving our juvenile justice system.”

The specific bills introduced in this package are:

  • Senate Bill 1227 – Addresses JJTF Recommendation 2, by amending the Human Services Code to include both juvenile justice and child welfare funding goals.
  • Senate Bill 1229 – Addresses JJTF Recommendation 5, by amending the Human Services Code to provide funding for indigent juvenile defense services.
  • Senate Bill 1228 – Addresses JJTF Recommendation 16, by keeping youth in out-of-home placement no longer than the timeframe supported by research.
  • Senate Bill 1226 – Addresses JJTF Recommendation 23, by creating a standardized statewide expungement process.


Legislation Requiring Written Non-Prosecution Agreements to Be Introduced

HARRISBURG − July 2, 2021 − Senators Lisa Baker (R-20) and Steve Santarsiero (D-10) announced their intention to introduce legislation requiring all future non-prosecution agreements to be in writing to be enforceable.

The action comes in response to the recently decided case of Commonwealth v. Cosby, where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated the criminal convictions of Cosby for aggravated indecent assault. 

The Court’s decision was based upon the fact that certain inculpatory testimony, which had been given in depositions at an earlier civil trial, was admitted at Cosby’s subsequent criminal trial.  Overturning the trial court’s determination to the contrary, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the testimony of Cosby at the earlier civil trial was provided only after an enforceable oral non-prosecution agreement was entered into with Cosby, and that Cosby relied on that agreement in providing his testimony at the civil trial. Allowing the admission of the inculpatory testimony, according to the Court, violated Cosby’s due process rights.

“The recent Supreme Court decision in Commonwealth v. Cosby highlighted a need for clearer rules regarding the prosecution of crimes,” said Sen. Santarsiero. “Requiring that non-prosecution agreements must be in writing will protect the due process rights of the accused, while helping to ensure that victims have access to justice.” 

“The oral agreement may be legal for the moment, but it is indefensible given what we have learned about the prevalence of sexual abuse and harassment throughout our society,” said Sen. Baker. “The system is slanted too heavily toward perpetrators, discouraging reporting and denying a true chance of justice for those with the fortitude to bring charges.” 

“This oral agreement turned into a horrible miscarriage of justice. We must act to prevent a repetition,” Baker and Santarsiero added. 

The Senators serve as the Republican and Democratic chairs, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction in this matter.


Kayden’s Law Passes Pennsylvania State Senate

BUCKS COUNTY − June 24, 2021 − Today the State Senate passed landmark legislation that will save children’s lives.  Senate Bill 78, also known as Kayden’s Law, is legislation that will provide urgently needed reform to Pennsylvania’s child custody statute.  Kayden Mancuso, in whose memory the bill was named, was a seven-year-old from Lower Makefield Township.  In August 2018, her biological father brutally murdered her during an unsupervised weekend visit.  The visit had been ordered by the court in the custody case between the father and Kayden’s mom, Kathy Sherlock, despite evidence of abusive and violent behavior by the father. 

Senate Bill 78 is a bi-partisan effort by Senators Lisa Baker (R-20) and Steve Santarsiero (D-10), who serve as the Republican and Democratic chairs, respectively, of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The legislation would help protect children by making their safety and welfare the principle focus in any custody dispute.  It does that by imposing safety conditions and restrictions on visitation in cases of abuse; modifying the factors that a judge must consider in making a custody award to put the focus on the health and safety of the child; and recommending better training of all court personnel involved in custody cases.

“Too many terrible tragedies are explained away with the unacceptable excuse that no system can protect everyone or anticipate the actions of individuals intent on violence,” said Sen. Baker.  “Our responsibility in protecting children is to take every reasonable step available to keep them from harm’s way and prevent a repetition of what happened to Kayden.  Without this change in the law, the system would remain tilted to the detriment of the interests and safety of at-risk children.”  

“Make no mistake, if signed into law, Senate Bill 78 will save children’s lives,” said Sen. Santarsiero.  “No child in Pennsylvania should ever be left alone with an abuser, period.  Kayden’s Law will help ensure that that never happens again,” he added.

The vote today in the Senate is an important step in the process of getting the bill to the governor’s desk.  Santarsiero acknowledged everyone who has helped get it to this point. “I want to thank my friend and colleague, Senator Lisa Baker, for her leadership and for making this bill a priority of the committee this session.  I also want to thank my House colleagues, Representatives Tina Davis (D-141) and Perry Warren (D-31) for their work on this issue as well as all of the advocates who have weighed in on the many drafts of the legislation.  But the greatest credit must go to Kathy Sherlock and the rest of Kayden’s family.  Kathy has been a tireless advocate for the children of our state.  Her strength and dedication to this cause has inspired me time and again not to give up.”

“We have been working so hard for years now to see this day for justice for Kayden and for all the kids who are put in harms way by family courts every single day,” said Kathy Sherlock, Kayden’s mom. “Kayden’s Law could have saved my daughter if it had been in place in 2018. Let’s hope it helps other children suffering and at risk right now.”

Senate Bill 78 now moves to the State House for consideration.