July 13, 2024 2:02 am
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Pa.’s Juvenile Detention Centers Are Overcrowded, but Building More Isn’t the Answer, Advocates Say

Credit: iStock

by Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star

Youth advocates and a juvenile justice official called on Pennsylvania lawmakers to address a shortage of space and staff that has created a crisis affecting children in the justice system.

While the head of the state chief juvenile probation officers’ group said the solution is for the state Department of Human Services to make more beds available, a Juvenile Law Center advocate urged lawmakers to implement recommendations to reduce the number of young people held in secure facilities. 

Juvenile Law Center staff attorney Malik Pickett told the House Children and Youth Committee during a meeting on Thursday that the overcrowding crisis in juvenile facilities comes in tandem with a series of high-profile abuse scandals in county-owned and private youth treatment facilities across the state. 

“We know what doesn’t work,” Pickett said. “These are all residential facilities that are marked by rampant abuse and maltreatment of children in their care. The same facilities that we entrust every day to protect our children have instead viciously attacked and abuse them.”

Chadwick Libby, president of the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers, said the juvenile justice system has had success over the last decade in reducing the number of children who are placed in custody prior to and following the adjudication of charges. 

The number of children in secure detention, where youth charged with offenses are held before court, decreased by 74 percent. The number of adjudicated youth – those found delinquent by a judge – placed in residential treatment facilities has decreased by 75 percent.

Libby said the reduction in the number of commitments lead to closures.

“We actually are really a victim of our own success to be quite frank,” Libby said. 

Department of Human Services Office of Children and Youth Deputy Secretary Laval Miller-Wilson said 15 detention centers have closed in the last five years. The state operates five secure treatment facilities for adjudicated youth.

Statewide, between nine county-owned detention centers and three private facilities, there are 513 beds but only 366 are operational. In a House Appropriations Committee hearing earlier this month, acting DHS Secretary Valerie Arkoosh attributed the reduced capacity to reduced demand combined with staffing shortages and pandemic-related challenges. 

The result is that nearly half of the counties have no immediate access to space for youth who need to be detained and two-thirds can’t meet their daily needs, Libby said.

Libby emphasized that the number of children who require detention is a tiny fraction of those involved in the juvenile justice system, but they are typically those charged with serious crimes or who have special needs such as drug and alcohol treatment. 

The overcrowding of detention facilities is exacerbated by difficulty retaining staff. That’s a result of wages not being competitive with those offered by other employers in the retail and warehouse sectors. 

Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Ali said the impact has been severe at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center, where a facility designed for 185 residents reached a peak population of 231 in October.

“The high census has placed a significant strain on the residents and staff who work at the facility. While we do everything to ensure the safety of young people and staff at the facility, it is extremely challenging to ensure the daily needs and well being of the residents,” Ali said.

Overcrowding forces the facility to use its admission area to house children. And because of the effect on security, movement of residents within the facility is restricted.

As a result, residents must eat and learn in the living area and recreation time is reduced, Ali said. 

Ali attributed the main cause of the overcrowding to the state’s failure to place 68 youthful offenders who are ordered to complete residential treatment programs. While in the Philadelphia juvenile detention center, those children are not receiving the treatment and rehabilitation they require and it adds to their total time in custody, Ali said. 

Philadelphia has sued DHS in Commonwealth Court seeking an order to compel the state to take physical custody of those adjudicated youth. 

Further adding to the burden on Philadelphia’s facility is a federal law that prohibits children charged as adults in serious crimes from being held in adult jails, Ali said.

Miller-Wilson said that DHS is working to improve the operation and oversight of detention facilities and support counties in ensuring there are enough beds available, county juvenile courts make the decisions concerning how detention and rehabilitative services are used. 

The county Children Youth and Families agencies develop their own budgets for detention services and may decide to operate a detention facility or contract with a private provider. The state reimburses counties for a portion of those costs, Miller-Wilson said. 

DHS is responsible for licensing and regulating juvenile detention centers and inspects them annually. The regulations regarding detention centers are being revised to enhance safety, security and well-being of residents. 

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s 2023-24 budget proposal includes $2.8 million to support new licensing positions  

The state has also raised wages for its secure treatment center staff and recently opened a new facility in Pittston, Luzerne County, Miller-Wilson said. 

“These are all efforts that are reducing the wait time for youth that are state committed without sacrificing care quality,” he said.

Shapiro’s budget proposal also includes a $1.5 billion investment in county Children Youth and Family agencies to increase programming, staff levels and rates paid to private providers, Miller-Wilson said.

Pickett, of the Juvenile Law Center, said studies show that detention of any length is harmful to children and results higher levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts. It also exacerbates trauma that may have contributed to the behavior that led them to become involved in the justice system in the first place. 

“This is not the time to reopen facilities that have been closed for abuse or to build new facilities to create additional bed space,” Pickett said.

In recognition that the juvenile justice system was causing harm and needed to be reformed, state leaders formed the bipartisan interbranch Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force, which studied the system for 18 months and found that many youth entered the system for minor offenses, and that despite being effective, diversion programs were underused. 

“A clear path forward for the legislature is to enact the recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Task Force,” Pickett said.

Highlighting some of the recommendations, Pickett said the task force advised the adoption of strict criteria for detention to address the broad discretion juvenile court judges have regarding the use of detention. 

Such limitations would include a prohibition on detention for anyone under 14, charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony, or anyone who is pregnant or has given birth in the last year.

It also recommended establishing a permanent child advocate office to serve as an independent agency to investigate claims of mistreatment and abuse.  

“A statewide advocate will help children and families learn and assert their rights while in these facilities, protecting our youth and holding facilities and holding facilities accountable,” Pickett said. 

This story was written by Peter Hall, a journalist for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.