During public hearing held last night on the county’s proposed budget, various county representatives stressed the need for a new regional detention center for children in western Pennsylvania.
President Judge Kimberly Clark said courts in Allegheny County and across the state have worked to reduce the number of juveniles detained pre-adjudication or for technical probation violations, but noted there are still “youth that clearly need to be detained for the safety of our communities.” She suggested the lack of regional capacity for youth detention is contributing to rates of violent crime.
Not all county officials agree with that assessment, however. County Councilmember Bethany Hallam says a detention center for children is not necessary for public safety.
“The fear-mongering around this needs to stop. The data does not show there is a connection at all between Shuman closing and anything else. We need to focus on what evidence shows does work: supporting children and families with housing, mental health care, and financial resources needed to thrive in our communities,” Hallam says in a statement to Pittsburgh City Paper.
Some Peer-reviewed research has found that juvenile detention is not an effective deterrent against crime.
On Monday, William Simmons, the former director of Shuman, said that closing the facility was “the biggest mistake Allegheny County could have made.”
Shuman closed in September 2021 after the state pulled its provisional license following violations over several years involving children being left unattended with fatal consequences and inappropriate use of force.
Currently, there are 25 children being held in the Allegheny County Jail.
According to federal law, in most circumstances, it is not legal to hold juveniles in adult jail for longer than 48 hours without a hearing and a written judgment that doing so is “in the interest of justice.”
During last night's meeting, Councilmember Olivia Bennett raised concern that Shuman was shut down when the state revoked its license due to repeated violations and asked how the county will ensure the operator of this proposed detention center does not replicate those problems.
County Manager William McKain said that whoever operates the proposed detention center would be subject to the same state oversight that eventually deemed Shuman unfit to operate.
Chief Deputy Court Administrator Chris Connors referred to Abraxas, a private juvenile detention center in the center of the state, as a model for leaders in Western Pennsylvania to explore.
Earlier this year, GEO Group, which owns and operates Abraxas, was hit with a class action suit in the Western District Court of Pennsylvania by multiple juvenile plaintiffs alleging mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of Abraxas staff at the central Pennsylvania detention center.The county will accept proposals from developers until Oct. 28, 2022.