Community Legal Services and Philadelphia Legal Assistance Launch Youth Justice Project

In response to the unique challenges that youth in Philadelphia face every day, Community Legal Services (CLS) and Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) have launched the Youth Justice Project (YJP). Using a holistic and collaborative model, YJP seeks to transform the way legal services are provided to low-income and vulnerable youth ages 16-24 who face tremendous challenges, including:

  • Poverty: Philadelphia has an already high poverty rate of 26%, but for youth aged 16 to 24 in Philadelphia, the poverty rate is 38%

  • Unemployment: While the national unemployment rate is around 5%, the unemployment rate for youth aged 16-24 in Philadelphia is near 30%. For youth aging out of foster care, the unemployment rate is a staggering 47%.

  • Teen Parenting: Nearly 15% of Philadelphia teens who fail to graduate from high school drop out because they or a partner became pregnant. The unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds who do not have a high school degree is 60%.

  • Mental & Physical Health: In Pennsylvania, 71% of youth are cut off from SSI disability benefits when they turn 18, compared to approximately 55% nationally. In Philadelphia, 22.4% of 18-24 year-olds are uninsured, compared to 13.3% of other age groups. Youth of color are also much more likely to experience trauma, which can have life-long health impacts.

  • Arrest & Incarceration: Philadelphia’s arrest rate for youth is three and a half times higher than the national average. By age 23, it is estimated that 41% of young adults have been arrested at least once. One in three young black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.

YJP aims to help youth stabilize their lives through access to public benefits, housing, employment, assistance to families and other resources to ensure safety and stability. YJP also assists youth in planning for the future, including helping youth expunge juvenile and criminal records, access vocational training and education, and deal with student loan and other debt.

YJP was formed as a response to the high rates of deep poverty and unemployment among Philadelphia’s transition-age youth, as well as in recognition of a growing body of research showing that the brain continues to develop until around age 25. While transition-aged youth are still developing into mature and self-sufficient adults, many laws and policies begin treating them as fully-formed adults at age 18. Decisions made by youth during this time can have life-long consequences, and withdrawing supports and services from youth during this period can lead to unnecessary challenges.

“We have had hundreds of young people – mainly youth of color – come into our employment unit with juvenile and criminal records that resulted from what should have been viewed as normal adolescent behavior. When we over-criminalize already marginalized young people, we only add to their trauma while stigmatizing them with a criminal record that makes it nearly impossible to access employment, housing and other basic needs,” said Jamie Gullen, Staff Attorney in CLS’s Employment Unit.

To address the often complex and intersecting challenges faced by clients as they transition to adulthood, YJP will use a holistic model of client representation to screen for a range of issues and provide representation or referrals to individual clients. Additionally, YJP will work closely with community partners to share information and resources and refer cases to ensure that the most vulnerable youth are accessing needed services. Finally, YJP will work closely with other youth advocates to ensure that youth have access to the supports and opportunities necessary to transition successfully into adulthood and out of poverty.

Said CLS Staff Attorney and Independence Foundation Fellow Claire Grandison, “Youth Justice Project is unique because we serve an often-ignored population through a coalition of advocates and service providers who work to share information, streamline referrals, and collaborate to improve outcomes for youth. Youth often face multiple issues simultaneously, and our coalition allows us to facilitate high-quality representation on a wider range of issues and make it easier for youth to access services that one organization alone can’t provide. With the help of our community partners, we can also connect with youth in the community to ensure they can access the services they need.”

In addition to providing comprehensive legal services to youth, YJP has worked closely with its community partners, including Defenders Association of Philadelphia, Education Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, Legal Clinic for the Disabled, Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Contact, and Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, to create factsheets and a resource guide specifically geared towards youth. The new materials answer common questions youth face, such as how to get a juvenile record expunged, get child support, or access critical public benefits. Additionally, YJP developed a report that outlines specific challenges youth face and suggests ways these challenges can be overcome.

“We’re working with particularly vulnerable subsets of youth, like teen parents. Teen parents face a variety of challenges older parents do not face. They have limited housing options, and are often improperly turned away from courts or public benefits offices due to their age. They are also very likely to rely on the advice of adults, even when that advice is incorrect, because they are not accustomed to pushing back on authority figures,” said Jesse Krohn, an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. She added, “When working with these young people, it’s important to not only help them address their legal problems, but to help them learn to be powerful self-advocates.”

Rose, who came to Community Legal Services for help as a 24-year-old single mother, explained, “As a young single mom, it’s really hard. When I was younger I let people who were bad influences drag me back and stop me from reaching my goals. I was suffering from depression and had so much weighing on my mind. Getting legal help changed my perspective so I could think about moving forward with my life. It helped me think more positively and make a plan to start moving toward my future goals.”

The Youth Justice Project report, resource guide, and fact sheets are all available online at www.clsphila.org/YouthJustice and www.philalegal.org/YouthJustice.