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House committee told Pa.’s shortage of juvenile detention beds is a ‘public crisis’

Patriot-News - 4/21/2023

Pennsylvania’s over-burdened juvenile detention system was described to lawmakers Thursday as a “serious public crisis,” as the House Children & Youth Committee met to hear testimony on the problem.

State and county officials told the committee the commonwealth is facing a dearth of secure detention beds following a years-long decline in their use. But justice reform advocates cautioned the shortage may still be a self-inflicted problem, saying they are still seeing detention used in cases where it isn’t warranted and cautioning against a swing back toward congregate facilities.

“We are a victim of our own success, to be frank,” said Chadwick Libby, director of probation for Dauphin County and head of the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Probation Officers.

Juvenile detention refers to facilities where young people are placed after they are taken into custody, but before they are fully adjudicated. For years, the state has been trying to cut back on the use of juvenile detention, opting instead for in-home counseling and monitoring, community day centers, and other programs that are less traumatic and less hard on families.

Detention centers “securely house children who for a variety of reasons aren’t able to remain in their homes as they await adjudication,” said Laval Miller-Wilson, deputy secretary for the Office of Children, Youth & Families in the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Detention placement in a secure facility is “intended to be short term” and “only appropriate when a court believes that a youth is at risk in the community or they’re going to be fleeing during the proceeding,” Miller-Wilson said.

The move away from detention has been a success, Libby said, with juvenile placements in secure detention facilities dropping 74% in the last decade, which translates to 10,290 fewer instances of young people being institutionalized.

At the same time, the two-year recidivism rate for juvenile offenders is a relatively low 11.7 percent, according to Libby’s data.

But county juvenile justice staff are now seeing the opposite problem; the economic shock brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic caused detention facilities, with their declining numbers, to face deeper staffing shortages, Libby said.

Staff shortages have led to only 366 of the state’s 513 licensed secure detention beds being operational, Libby said. A 2021 report from the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission cited similar availability levels, noting that 15 secure detention facilities had closed since 2006.

In addition, 270 of the operational beds are in county-run facilities that may not accept out-of-county youth, leaving the remainder of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to vie for roughly 100 beds, often in far-away parts of the state, according to Libby. Nearly a quarter of counties face three-to-four hour drive times to reach facilities that have availability, according to his calculations.

This means youth offenders are not getting the services and follow-up that they need to help better themselves, and youth who present a serious safety risk are not being properly placed, Libby said.

Although youth crime has generally declined in recent years, the offenses that remain are increasingly serious - with one in three juvenile referrals in Harrisburg over the past two years was for gun crimes, Libby said.

Allegheny County’s top probation officer told a state Senate panel last year that a lack of secure juvenile detention beds meant that some youth offenders were being held in adult jail, despite a 2018 federal law intended to stop this.

There is also a concern with the facilities where young are sent after detention, if their final adjudication by a judge results in further placement. These longer-term residential facilities include state-run youth rehabilitation centers as well as privately-run reform schools and similar institutions.

In October 2022, the City of Philadelphia sued DHS, saying the state failed to assume custody of young people who had been adjudicated into a state residential placement, but whom the state has simply not taken. The state’s placement backlog is now 160 young offenders, Libby said.

Philadelphia’s secure detention center has an intended capacity of 184, Kimberly Ali, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, told the House committee Thursday. But the facility is overcrowded, with a peak of 231 youth detainees late last year, Ali said, with youth housed in makeshift quarters and with limited amenities.

“The most significant factor contributing to the overcrowding is the fact that the state has failed to assume custody of 68 youth who are awaiting placement,” Ali said.

Miller-Wilson indicated he could not elaborate on that aspect of the issue due to litigation.

But advocates from the Juvenile Law Center cautioned against the state over-correcting, especially since several of Pennsylvania’s juvenile facilities have been closed due to abuse or unsafe conditions.

These include longer-term residential facilities – such as Glen Mills Schools, which was embroiled in an abuse scandal – as well as county secure detention centers, with Delaware County’s detention center closing in the midst of a grand jury investigation. Allegheny County closed its facility after the DHS revoked its license for repeated safety violations.

“This is not the time to re-open facilities that have been closed for abuse,” said Malik Pickett, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, but rather an opportunity to “remove youth from these facilities and prioritize community based programs.”

Pickett pointed to the final report from the state’s Juvenile Justice Task Force, issued in 2021, which found the state was still over-adjudicating youth.

Pennsylvania authorities refer school infractions to law enforcement at 2.7 times the national average, the report found; likewise, fewer than half of misdemeanor offenses by youth with no prior record were going into diversionary programs, according to the report.

Rather than expanding capacity, “mandating diversion for these youth will reduce the number of young people in the system and reduce crowding in these facilities,” Pickett said.

Time spent in detention correlates with worse outcomes for low-level youth offenders, the state study found, and facilities “need to do better evaluating the low-risk youth from the high-risk youth,” said Bree Hood, a Juvenile Law Center advocate who has been through the justice system.

Legislators are working on some policies related to the juvenile detention issue. The task force report spawned a slate of bills that would, among other things, more frequent reviews of youth offender placements and attempt to expand diversion programs and other alternatives.

The most immediate hurdle, Libby said, is chronically low state reimbursement rates and an “arcane” funding allocation system for county justice services that leaves detention centers underfunded and struggling to pay staff, with wages in the $12 to $17 per hour range at most facilities.

The Children & Youth Committee’s work is currently in its exploratory phase, committee chair Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, said following Thursday’s hearing.

“It’s a balance between providing those community based alternatives, not over-institutionalizing young people, while also maintaining public safety for the broader community,” Bullock said.

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