Revised court rules protect juveniles
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Revamped juvenile court procedures will prevent schools from taking additional disciplinary measures when a child gets in legal trouble outside of school, attorneys said.
The additions to Pennsylvania's Rules of Juvenile Court Procedure -- Rules 160, 161 and 163 -- were released in May by the high court and are set to be effective in August.
The Supreme Court procedural revisions came in the same month that a Mt. Lebanon High School senior was forced to miss his prom, and tonight's graduation ceremony, because he was cited for possession of drug paraphernalia April 23 by Mt. Lebanon police in an off-campus, after-school-hours incident.
That senior was not a juvenile, but the new procedural rules could affect cases similar to his, said the student's attorney, Steve Townsend.
"They're on the right track," he said. "We already have a criminal justice system" in place that is supposed to handle criminal adjudication outside of school.
Rule 163, which pertains to releasing juvenile information to schools, was given a face-lift -- Section E, a new part of the rule, will now protect unauthorized dissemination of information in a child's school record to any unauthorized person, agency or department under a possible finding of contempt.
And in an explanatory comment, Rule 163 now sets forth that information sent to the school about a student's juvenile court proceedings may not be used to discipline that student in school.
Specifically, the new rule explains that "any information received by the school [regarding a student's delinquency or court record] should not be used against the juvenile for disciplinary reasons, including suspensions and expulsions."
Mr. Townsend said that the word "including" was an important one, because it suggests that other areas of discipline, beyond expulsion or suspension, are out of bounds as well -- such as forcing a student to miss the prom. The rule, he noted, does not differentiate between "rights" and "privileges," as Mt. Lebanon has sought to do.
It merely says that legal issues should not be "used against the juvenile for disciplinary reasons."
And forcing a student to miss the prom, or sit out a football game, or miss any other "privilege," is still a form of discipline.
"Clearly, when you take a privilege away from someone, it's discipline -- it's punishment."
The new rule was a welcome addition for other attorneys who specialize in children's interests.
Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia called the rule an "important protection," noting the likelihood that students returning from juvenile court sanctions often come back to face further punishment from school.
"There's no justification for the school taking separate action," Ms. Levick said.
An entirely new procedural rule, Rule 161, sets forth who may inspect, copy and disseminate a juvenile's probation file -- which is not to be confused with filings in the official court record.
This distinction, along with what may and may not be shared, according to one practitioner who focuses on child advocacy, had been a point unclear among probation officers under the old rules.
Also revised was Rule 160, on inspecting, copying and disseminating the official court record.
According to Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, there had been confusion among probation officers as to what they could share with placement facilities that rehabilitate youths out of juvenile court.
Now, Rule 161 -- "Inspecting, Copying and Disseminating Juvenile Probation Files" -- should settle that, he said.
The rule sets forth that juvenile probation offices have discretion to disseminate portions of their files to the juvenile, service providers, placement facilities and court staff when serving that child.
Mr. Cervone, who sat on the nine-member Juvenile Court Procedural Rules Committee tasked with advising the Supreme Court on the rules, noted he could not speak on the deliberations of the committee or the court, as they are internal, but offered his perspective as an attorney whose practice revolves around child advocacy.
"It's long been the law in Pennsylvania that juvenile record information is not widely shared, that a wayward past should not haunt you," Mr. Cervone said. But, where the Pennsylvania law, under the governance of the Juvenile Act, and a previous set of rules had left room for misunderstanding, the new set of rules ties up the loose ends, he said.
According to Mr. Cervone, Rule 161 also adds needed language about how electronic records may be inspected, which he said provides safeguards against the information adversely affecting employment opportunities and credit checks.
Electronic records will be subject to inspection and copying only pursuant to a court order, Rule 161 states.
As for the actual probation files, the rule allows the juvenile's attorney, a lawyer for the state and the Sexual Offender Assessment Board to have open access. Anyone else aiming to inspect the files may only do so through permission of a court order.
Juvenile probation files are defined as records "formally maintained by the juvenile probation office and its officers, including, but not limited to, copies of information contained in the official juvenile court record; social studies; school records and reports; health evaluations, screenings, assessments, records and reports, including psychological and psychiatric evaluations and reports, drug and alcohol testing, evaluations and reports; placement reports and documents; employment records; and probation reports."
Under the rule, a probation officer's notes are now protected from disclosure, a policy that Mr. Cervone said gives a probation officer the "privacy of his mind."
Rule 160 now provides guidance on who may copy and disseminate official court records, whereas the old rule only dealt with credentials for inspection.
Under the new rule, anyone entitled to inspect the juvenile's record may also copy it.
The rule left untouched a long list of approved inspectors, among whom were judges, masters, juvenile probation officers and staff of the court; the state's attorney, the juvenile's attorney and the juvenile; any agency that has custody or supervision of the juvenile; and probation officers and other court officials. Others included were judges determining bail, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and officials of the Department of Corrections or another state correctional institution.
Asked whether the new juvenile rules were in response to the Luzerne County judicial scandal, both Mr. Cervone and Ms. Levick said no. The scandal, dubbed by prosecutors as "kids-for-cash," cast a pall on the state's judiciary as thousands of juveniles were ushered off to two privately owned juvenile detention centers from which, prosecutors alleged, two Luzerne County judges were receiving kickbacks.
Ms. Levick said the Luzerne County situation uncovered the need for a number of changes to Pennsylvania's juvenile court procedure, but the release of probation information did not appear to be related.
Many called for the state to open the doors to its juvenile courtrooms as the scandal unraveled and Ms. Levick said tighter restrictions on access to records would not interfere with that initiative.
After all, as Ms. Levick put it: "Access would not have changed anything in Luzerne."
First Published June 4, 2012 12:00 am