Despite setbacks, Philadelphia innovators press on with juvenile justice reform

October 6, 2021

Names: Rhonda McKitten and Lisa Varon

Title: Project directors, Juvenile Assessment Center

City: Philadelphia

Innovation seldom follows a straight line—and often one of the most challenging phases of creating a new project is maintaining early momentum and adapting to unexpected changes beyond your control.

That’s where Lisa Varon and Rhonda McKitten find themselves. Varon, as project manager, and McKitten, as project director, are two of the leaders behind Philadelphia’s drive to create a Juvenile Assessment Center that aims to create a more appropriate intake experience for young people, one that is trauma-informed and youth-centered rather than one that typically deposits youth in a concrete cell to await booking with adults.

The timeline for the project, one of the award winners in the 2018 Bloomberg Philanthropies U.S. Mayor’s Challenge Competition, was to open a pilot physical space in the fall of 2020 that would proactively link families to community-based services and divert low-risk youth out of the juvenile justice system.

COVID derailed that plan, however. So did changes in city leadership, including the police department, and reverberations after George Floyd’s murder.

“Our city was really turned upside down and in a lot of ways,” says Varon. “There's always this temptation to focus on Band-Aid solutions,” rather than initiatives that may take longer to have impact but address systemic problems.

“Everything has been so tumultuous,” adds McKitten, a longtime juvenile public defender. “So, Lisa and I have been working together with stakeholders in the police department and the rest of the justice system to try to come up with ways to achieve the same goals, even though we don't at this point, have a physical location.”

One approach is what Varon and McKitten are calling “expedited release.” Police officers would use new equipment to more quickly identify young people who might be recommended for release to an adult guardian before being booked into the system. They’ve also built in some procedural changes for police and prosecutors so that a week’s lag time is allowed to look at juvenile cases so as to explore other options besides booking and sending a case to court.

As far as a central space for juvenile assessment, McKitten says the team would still like to have something centralized, but that the pandemic prompted creative thinking that has led to the consideration of multiple drop-off centers that might be set up in partnership with community organizations that might be closer to a young person’s home.

A key for Varon and McKitten, as conditions in the city have changed and new stakeholders have emerged, is to be flexible but also not lose sight of their original vision. “We try to stay focused on the original big picture purpose and to think about how do we implement to get there, even if it’s not the way we envisioned at the beginning.”

Pro tip: (McKitten) “Celebrate every small success—because in this environment, it sometimes feels like it’s constant delays or things getting in the way.”