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YSRP Files Emergency Lawsuit on behalf of Youth Incarcerated in PA amid COVID-19 Pandemic

PHILADELPHIA, PA (April 1, 2020) – Today Juvenile Law Center, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project and DLA Piper filed a King’s Bench petition before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on behalf of all Pennsylvania youth currently held in county detention centers or other correctional/residential placements, and on behalf of all youth charged as adults (“Direct File Juveniles”) who are currently detained in county jails or juvenile detention centers.

The petition argues that the Court should exercise its extraordinary relief powers to immediately order trial court judges across the Commonwealth to review the cases of every youth currently in custody in juvenile detention centers, county jails, or longer term correctional or residential placements and to provide for the immediate release of medically vulnerable youth as well as several other categories of youth who pose no immediate or articulable risk of harm to others. The petition also makes the case that reducing the numbers of children held in these facilities is an urgent matter of public health, allowing detention centers and residential placements to follow CDC- recommended social distancing and hygiene practice and keeping as many young people and staff safe from virus transmission as possible.

“As most of us are effectively sheltering in place to avoid COVID 19 transmission, we cannot allow our vulnerable youth to be left behind in physical settings that actually promote, rather than impede or stop, exposure and contagion,” said Marsha Levick, Chief Legal Officer of Juvenile Law Center. “We call upon the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to immediately order our judges across the Commonwealth to review cases of youth in custody and to release as many youth as possible to alternative, safe living arrangements. We seek extraordinary action in response to extraordinary times.”

Detention centers, jails, and other congregate care facilities are breeding grounds for this highly contagious virus. For the safety of youth, staff and community, children who can be safely released to family should be sent home — with supports as needed — and others should be sent to appropriate, safe community placements. In addition to seeking the immediate release of as many youth as possible, we are also asking the Court to appoint a Special Master to oversee and monitor the implementation and enforcement of the Supreme Court’s order.

“Youth in carceral settings across Pennsylvania, who are disproportionately black, brown and poor, are at extreme risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Joanna Visser Adjoian, Co-Director, Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP). “If youth in custody become sick, the facilities they inhabit are woefully ill-equipped to give them the care they deserve. By protecting the safety of these children, we are protecting our broader community. YSRP stands with all youth in custody, and particularly those facing charges in the adult criminal legal system, as we seek to avoid further devastation.”

Many children held in custody are there awaiting trial, as a result of probation violations, failures to appear or misdemeanor charges. All youth, regardless of the seriousness of their crime, have a right to safety and protection from contagion. Failure to reduce the numbers of youth in custody during this pandemic greatly increases the risk of catastrophic health consequences for youth, the staff who work in these facilities, and the communities in which they live.

“We have a moral responsibility as a society to vulnerable incarcerated children,” said Courtney Gilligan Saleski, Partner DLA Piper US, Co-Chair White Collar & Investigations. “We would like these children and staff to know that we are fighting to keep them safe. Public health experts are clear: the only way to keep these children and staff safe is to send them home. DLA Piper is committed to seeing this happen, consistent with our steadfast commitment to juvenile justice.”

Juvenile Law Center advocates for rights, dignity, equity and opportunity for youth in the foster care and justice systems. Founded in 1975, Juvenile Law Center is the first non-profit, public interest law firm for children in the country. We fight for youth through litigation, appellate advocacy and submission of amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs, policy reform, public education, training, consulting, and strategic communications. Widely published and internationally recognized as leaders in the field, Juvenile Law Center has substantially shaped the development of law and policy on behalf of youth. We strive to ensure that laws, policies, and practices affecting youth advance racial and economic equity and are rooted in research, consistent with children’s unique developmental characteristics, and reflective of international human rights values. For more information about Juvenile Law Center’s work, visit

Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP) is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that works to keep children out of adult jails and prisons. YSRP provides comprehensive support to young people prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system, including individuals who were sentenced to life without parole as children (Juvenile Lifers), and works to ensure that they can return home and live full lives with dignity.

DLA Piper is a global law firm with lawyers located in more than 40 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, positioning us to help clients with their legal needs around the world. In certain jurisdictions, this information may be considered attorney advertising.

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