Late last year, President Donald Trump told Congress if they gave him comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation, he would sign it. They did, and he did.
A lot of what’s in that package of legislation was introduced or championed by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. The senator sat down with the New Pittsburgh Courier editorial board, Feb. 1, to talk about it and a few other topics.
“Naturally the White House took credit for it, and that’s OK. It doesn’t matter,” said Sen. Casey. “It allowed us to give judges more discretion, to get mandatory minimums down for non-violent offenders, but also to finally—in law—make progress on the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. That was a policy that in large measure was a racist policy. It also gives incentives to those who are incarcerated and want to reduce their sentences.”
But because this was a “moving vehicle”—meaning the legislation was guaranteed to pass and be signed into law—Sen. Casey saw an opportunity to attach measures from bills he’d written in the past that never saw a vote. The Youth Promise Act was one of them—several of its key provisions were successfully included.
“What this says is look, there are best practices out there about prevention and intervention—they’re kind of battle-tested. We ought to use them, but sometimes communities don’t have the resources to implement them,” he told the Courier. “We also said something about the interplay between the federal government and local communities. You don’t want the feds showing up, the suits coming in the door, saying look, we have a pot of federal money, we’re going to give it to you, but this is a one-size-fits-all plan. Try it on; if you like it you get the money. That doesn’t work very well. So this (new legislation) says local communities make the determination about how they do prevention—what will work in their communities.”
Per the bill’s legislative summary, it is designed to address the unmet needs of delinquent and at-risk youth who have or are likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system, and to implement programs—such as tutoring, youth mentoring, and physical and mental health programs—to help disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. These funds would not be given directly to local governments or community agencies, but to the states. Communities would then apply for the grants.
The bill was signed into law on Dec. 21, 2018.
“There’s a lot we can to do get a kid who’s headed down the wrong path, get them early, to surround that child with help and pointed in the right direction instead of waiting ‘til they have two or three arrests and are in the juvenile justice system and a long way from getting out of it,” Sen. Casey told the Courier exclusively.
He stopped short of supporting the “Medicare for all” calls some in Congress are making, but warned of the need to stay vigilant against continued Republican assaults on the Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion. Senator Casey said he is confident going into budget conferences, especially given how well last year’s went.
“We got the largest increase ever for childcare block grant dollars, that means 10,131 more kids in Pennsylvania can get into childcare this year. Three hundred million dollars more for Title 1 schools, $600 million more for head start, $3 billion in new money for the opioid crisis, $3 billion for the National Institutes of Health. We added $300 million to the Community Development Block Grants program—which President Trump wanted to eliminate entirely,” he said. “So I’m optimistic. There are place we can work together.”
Senator Casey said he was unsure of the timing on the availability of the Youth Promise Act grants. His office later said it is a Title V program under the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention, and if it follows the office’s other Title V schedule, the application window should open in April and close in June.
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