Philadelphia suing the state of Pennsylvania over overcrowding at juvenile justice center

PHILADELPHIA– The city of Philadelphia is asking a judge to force the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to take into custody more than 70 youths who were sentenced in court to state rehabilitation programs in hopes of alleviating the city’s allegedly dangerous overcrowding at the city’s correctional facility.

In the lawsuit filed Friday, city attorneys said the state refused to give priority to the transfer of juveniles from the overcrowded juvenile court center. The city is asking a judge to order the state to take in the convicted juveniles within 20 days and either contract with a private or public entity or open a state facility to handle the surge in juveniles being sentenced to state centers .

Staffers at Philadelphia’s youth facility spoke at a city council hearing last week about deteriorating conditions at the center, which is set to temporarily house up to 184 youth between the ages of 10 and 17 awaiting trial. But as of last Friday, the lawsuit said, the center had reached 223 youths – 74 of whom had been sentenced to state institutions and were awaiting transfer.

A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday. In a statement issued after the city council hearing last week, officials at the ministry said the state’s facilities were also operating at full capacity.

“There is no denial of service – it is about the need to maintain safe operations at our facilities as well,” wrote department spokeswoman Ali Fogarty.

The statement said the department cannot unilaterally release juveniles into its government treatment units to make room. It also gave counties the responsibility of contracting with private or public entities to house the juveniles pending transfer if they needed more space.

But Philadelphia officials said they had been asking for help for nearly three years.

“The Commonwealth has neglected this fundamental duty for too long. The city has made a good faith request to state officials to honor their obligations and avoid the crisis we are now witnessing,” said Vanessa Garrett Harley, Philadelphia Deputy Mayor for the Office of Children and families said in an emailed statement Monday. “Unfortunately, over the months, no meaningful measures have been taken on your part and empty promises have been made.”

Staff at the facility said more than 20 youths are currently sleeping on mattresses on the floor in the facility’s reception area, which is not designed to accommodate them. They also said that the increased population coupled with a staff shortage has meant that children cannot leave their cells or living quarters for school, meals or leisure because it has become dangerous to move them around the facility.

In the lawsuit, the city’s attorneys said the state took an average of 20 days to transfer juveniles in 2019, but many of the 74 juveniles awaiting transfer have waited four to five months. And juveniles awaiting transfer will not count towards their sentence.

Unlike adults, who are sentenced to a specific sentence, juveniles are sentenced to complete rehabilitation programs such as anger management, drug or alcohol treatment, or other programs. These can sometimes last three or six months, but the city’s holding facility does not run these programs.

The lawsuit says city officials have been trying to work with the state to address the overcrowding for nearly three years, but problems came to a head in early October when juveniles being held in the highest security perimeter overpowered staff and made their way forced into a common room. Staffers said the fight left more than a dozen staffers and at least one resident with injuries – some seriously, and police had to be called to help distribute the youths back to their units.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Philadelphia suing the state of Pennsylvania over overcrowding at juvenile justice center

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