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One goal of youth and family support services is to keep kids out of juvenile detention, but for those who are accused of serious crimes, Pennsylvania doesn't have enough space in its detention centers, and it is being described as a crisis.
A report by the Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission outlined the effects of facility closures on accessibility to services. Since 2006, some 15 juvenile detention centers have closed in the state, including Allegheny County’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, which had its license revoked in 2021.
There are now 14 facilities providing secure detention services across the state, and 61 of 67 counties must vie for beds at just seven of them. The report indicated staff shortages mean not all the beds can be used.
The closest juvenile detention facilities to Allegheny County are in Erie, Fayette and Westmoreland counties.
Abigail Wilson, director of child welfare, juvenile justice and education services for the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth, and Family Services, said a few factors are contributing to the lack of available beds.
“Sometimes the youth need doesn’t match the facility that they’re being sent to,” Wilson said. “Sometimes there are staffing challenges because, in detention centers, there has to be a certain staff-to-youth ratio. And if they can’t meet that, they can’t continue to accept youth. There are sometimes medical concerns that can’t be addressed at the facility.”
COVID outbreaks have added to the complications, she said.
In the meantime, experts emphasized detention is never the ideal solution for a troubled youth. Wilson argued more mental health treatment, support for rebuilding family relationships and greater community involvement can all help contribute to preventing young people from entering the juvenile justice system or being placed in detention, but it takes funding and coordination.
“Building community-based centers, and places where families can come and receive help without stigmatized feeling, or feeling judged in a certain way,” Wilson said. “Screening and assessment for mental health or needs, education or tutoring services are helpful; crisis intervention, family counseling.”
A consequence of the detention-bed shortage is young people often must be housed out of their home county, which puts a strain on families as well as juvenile probation departments.
The report states that the lack of detention facilities is straining juvenile probation offices, which must travel much further to reach a secure facility, and putting additional stress on families and attorneys.
In addition, community safety is a concern, the authors report. During a six-month period in 2021, the report states, at least 62 juvenile defendants were released from custody due to a lack of secure beds. In 10 of those cases, the youths who were released committed new crimes before their court hearings, or failed to appear for their hearings, the authors write.
The report can be viewed on the website of the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth & Family Services.
Danielle M. Smith is a producer for Public News Service, where this story first appeared. An award-winning radio journalist/personality with more than a decade of experience in broadcast media, she is a former audio journalist with American Urban Radio Networks and Sheridan Broadcasting Networks who also hosts a weekly community affairs show “Good News” on WGBN (1360 AM/98.9 FM). Tube City Almanac contributed to this report.
Originally published September 05, 2022.