Children & Youth Committee holds hearing on overcrowding in PA juvenile detention facilities

HARRISBURG, April 21 – The Pennsylvania House Children & Youth Committee held a hearing Thursday to discuss the issue of overcrowding in juvenile detention centers across the Commonwealth.

“As an advocate for young people, the issue of overcrowding in juvenile detention centers is something I find particularly pressing,” Children & Youth Committee Majority Chairwoman Donna Bullock said. “We must get kids all the care they need while they are in the system so that when they leave, they enter society as functioning and productive young adults. When facilities are overcrowded and understaffed, court ordered treatment or services are delayed, students miss out on educational and recreational opportunities, young people are sleeping in unacceptable conditions and detained youth are victimized — all of which are unacceptable.”

Experts in the field such as Laval Miller-Wilson, acting deputy secretary of the Office of Children, Youth, and Families; Chadwick Libby, president of the Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers; Kimberly Ali, Department of Human Services commissioner with the City of Philadelphia; Malik Pickett, Esq., staff attorney with the Juvenile Law Center; and Bryanna Hood, an advocate with the Juvenile Law Center, testified during the hearing.

“Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Justice System is decentralized. County, courts of Common Pleas — they’re the hearts of juvenile justice, and county juvenile courts are responsible for making every significant decision in the juvenile justice system, from detention to adjudication to determining what an appropriate disposition is and ordering rehabilitative services for a juvenile,” Miller-Wilson said. “Many counties have stopped providing secure detention.”

“Here’s the important piece, we have 513 licensed beds in Pennsylvania; however, only 366 of those are operational. And then when you break it down to the county-owned facilities, they roughly own about 270 of those operational beds, leaving about 57 counties at 76% to vie for around 100 operational beds,” Libby said. “That is alarming.”

“The PJJSC is licensed to hold no more than 184 young people,” Ali said. “Unfortunately, since August of 2022, the center has been consistently over capacity, with a peak census of 231 youth in October 2022. The census as of today is 212 youth.”

“The same facilities that we entrust every day to protect our children have instead viciously attacked and abused them,” Pickett said. “Instead of experiencing the care and services that they need to thrive at the most pivotal times of their lives, children experience abuse and a multitude of other harms.”

“I was 17 when I first entered the juvenile justice system. I was in two juvenile facilities total, and in both facilities, I experienced abuse and neglect,” Hood said. “A lot of the female youths have experienced physical and sexual abuse, often by men, and when they are locked up, they experience physical contact, restraints, strip searches and other interactions with men that are unsafe and harmful. I don’t understand why men would even be allowed in female units.”

The Children & Youth Committee will take Thursday’s testimony into consideration when discussing legislation going forward, said Bullock.