Youth advocates call for overhaul of Philadelphia juvenile justice system

They are critical of the reasons for dangerous overcrowding at the city’s Juvenile Justice Service Center
Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center.
Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center. Photo credit City of Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Youth advocates on Tuesday called for a revamp of Philadelphia’s juvenile justice system to deal with an overcrowding crisis at the city’s youth detention center.

They criticized a plan to move some of the youth to a state facility in Luzerne County.

The advocates gathered outside the city’s Juvenile Justice Service Center (PJJSC), their call for change echoing off its walls.

“It’s time for us to rethink why we are detaining these children,” said Nicole El of the Defenders Association. She said dangerous overcrowding inside the center was not just because the state has refused to take youth who’ve already been sentenced, but because too many youth are put in detention in the first place.

“Shuffling kids from one detention facility to another is worse than what some might call a band-aid solution,” she said, “particularly when we’re moving them out of the communities and sending them far away.”

El was alluding to a judge’s order that the state take custody of 15 youth from the center, and the state’s plan, in response, to open a new facility in Pittston, Luzerne County to take them.

Malik Pickett of the Juvenile Law Center said a task force found most of the youth are in for minor, non-violent offenses, that community-based programs could more effectively deal with, and proposed steps to keep them out of detention.

“Stricter limits on what youth can be detained and requiring the use of diversionary programs,” said Pickett.”

City officials say they are looking for better long-term solutions, but the crisis at the center needs immediate relief.

The city sued the state last month, charging that the state’s failure to take custody of youth who’ve been sentenced in juvenile court to state facilities has led to dangerous overcrowding at PJJSC.

“Overcrowding and staffing issues at the PJJSC have made it unsafe to move youth for meals, school, and programming,” Department of Human Services Deputy Commissioner Gary Williams wrote in a declaration filed with the lawsuit.

“Movement must be carefully monitored and coordinated to avoid safety issues. As a direct result of the overcrowding, the PJJSC is currently dangerously understaffed.”

Mayor Jim Kenney said the city has asked the state for three years to take custody of youth in detention, when a judge has ordered them to be moved to a state facility.

Featured Image Photo Credit: City of Philadelphia