PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) – Pennsylvania officials say they are working to open a new secure treatment unit for young offenders by the end of this week, to comply with a judge’s order as part of of a trial to relieve overcrowding at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Service Center (PJJSC).
On Thursday, Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler gave the state ten days to care for 15 youths who remain at the PJJSC weeks after being sentenced to treatment in state facilities.
It was initially unclear, however, where the youngsters would be sent. The state suggested they could go to a private facility in Texas.
This option appears to be off the mark, in favor of accelerating the opening of a planned new public facility in Pittston, Luzerne County.
“We are working quickly to finalize the steps to open the Northeast Secure Treatment Unit for placement starting next week,” a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Social Services wrote in an email Friday. -mail. She said the state would have no further comment since the lawsuit is still ongoing.
The city sued the state last month, blaming the state’s failure to care for youths convicted by juvenile court in public facilities of causing dangerous overcrowding at the PJJSC.
Staff and youth incarcerated at the PJJSC report chaotic conditions, with children sleeping on the floor, no educational activities, no exercise or even family visits.
“These deteriorating conditions, coupled with demoralizing wait times for youth, lead to frustration that leads to more physical confrontations with staff and each other,” Philadelphia DHS Assistant Commissioner Gary Williams wrote in a statement for the trial.
“Since August 2022, we have had to call the police twice to help our staff members quell major fights.”
Williams said PJJSC has at least 30 overcapacity residents, including more than 60 young people awaiting transfer to public facilities.
He said the state has refused to accept custody of convicted youths for nearly three years and last month closed admission to new placements, saying its facilities were full due to staffing issues.
The state now advertises counselors for Pittston Settlement on its job postings page.
Deputy Mayor for Children and Families Vanessa Garret Harley called Cesiler’s preliminary order a partial victory.
“While we are grateful that this court order brings some relief to the youth and staff of PJJSC, we will continue to seek the full legal relief we originally sought,” she said. “The City of Philadelphia will continue to move forward exploring all options to ensure it can maintain the safety, health and well-being of PJJSC youth and staff.
Councilwoman Helen Gym, who supported the lawsuit, said the transfers were necessary to relieve the “inhumane emergency crisis” at PJJSC, but added they were not a long-term solution.
“We need to develop and implement safe and effective programs that break cycles of violence and do not perpetuate them,” Gym said.
“What we know has worked best for young people is more options, closer to home, that are directly related to their needs which are smaller, intensive and that is what we are missing in the discourse of public safety and restorative around our young people.”
Advocates doubt that simply transferring young people to public facilities will accomplish much.
“Building new facilities and continuing to fill them with children is not really an adequate or effective response to the needs of children involved in the justice system,” said Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Project.
“We have a lot of research that children are hurting in these settings, that they are not keeping communities safe, that they are not preventing recidivism and that we should be looking for new solutions and new answers. We should think about investing money in people and communities, not buildings.