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Lack of PA Juvenile Detention Space Reaches Critical Stage

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Wednesday, August 31, 2022   

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.

Abigail Wilson, director of child welfare, juvenile justice, and education services for the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth, and Family Services, explained a few factors contributing to the lack of available beds.

"Sometimes the youth need doesn't match the facility that they're being sent to," Wilson pointed out. "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."

She noted most recently, COVID has added to the complications. 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 showed staff shortages mean not all the beds can be used.

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 suggested. "Screening and assessment for mental health or needs, education or tutoring services are helpful; crisis intervention, family counseling."

Another 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.

Disclosure: The Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy & Priorities, Children's Issues, Education, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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