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Where do Allegheny County executive candidates stand on Shuman Juvenile Detention Center?

Zoe Fuller
90.5 WESA

The next Allegheny County executive could help decide the future of juvenile detention in the county.

Since the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center was closed abruptly in September 2021, politicians, community groups and researchers have offered various proposals for what — if anything — should replace the center. In February, current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced an effort to re-establish a county-run facility or to create a public-private partnership to manage it. But, with no strict timeline in place, it’s possible that the county’s role in the decision might fall to the next county executive. (Fitzgerald is term-limited and will leave office in January.)

The race for Fitzgerald’s seat is crowded; there are seven candidates vying for the position. Most have said they would support reopening some kind of detention center, but others have questioned whether the county should work towards a new form of juvenile justice.

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How did we get here?

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked Shuman Center’s license to operate in August 2021. The facility had been operating on a series of consecutive provisional licenses after state DHS found multiple ongoing violations. Partially redacted reports from the time found a pattern of “gross incompetence, negligence and misconduct,” including “systemic medication administration errors,” skipped observation checks and other actions that put children being held at the facility in danger.

Pennsylvania has a state-supervised, county-administered child welfare system. So, while the state provides licensing and oversight for juvenile detention facilities, the county is responsible for day-to-day care and monitoring.

In Allegheny County, the Court of Common Pleas determines if a child who is accused of committing a crime should be detained before their trial. The court also decides where that child will be sent and, according to county officials and court administrators, the court will ultimately choose how juvenile justice is carried out in the county. But as the county is likely to own the detention facility or have some involvement with it, the county executive could still influence the court’s decision.

A spokesperson for the Court of Common Pleas said officials are working with the county to find a replacement for Shuman Center, but has not finalized whether that means another juvenile detention center or something different. He did not offer a timeline for when the court might make its final decision.

Where do county executive candidates stand?

When Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb joined the county executive race late last year, he was quick to condemn the ongoing poor conditions at the Allegheny County Jail, where a number of kids have been held since Shuman Center closed. At a candidate forum in March, Lamb reiterated his concerns about the jail and called for the county to reopen a public juvenile detention center that serves multiple counties.

“We're not going to profit off of the misfortune of our kids,” Lamb said, alluding to the Luzerne County “kids-for-cash” scandal, in which two former judges sent hundreds of juvenile offenders to privately run detention centers in exchange for $2.8 million in kickbacks.

The facility “needs an oversight board that includes the stakeholders, that includes people around juvenile justice, that includes people in the community. It includes law enforcement, that includes advocates for our young,” Lamb continued.

Dave Fawcett, a former county council member and attorney who worked on a 2016 ACLU lawsuit against the Allegheny County Jail, said the county needs to reopen a publicly run juvenile detention center. He also acknowledged that the county has a “credibility issue” and should put more mental health supports in place for kids.

At another candidate forum earlier in March, Fawcett said a teenager from Shaler is more likely to get a warning for potentially criminal behavior, while others will be sent to detention.

“Do you get the same treatment if you grew up in the Hill or in Lincoln-Larimer for the same thing that you might have done in the suburban school [district]? The answer has been, historically, no.”

Former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi said she found it “very difficult to understand why you would shut down a program, regardless of the reasons, without having a backup.”

She suggested that the county “tap into the school district” for assistance.

Most of the candidates agreed that the county should take a more “holistic approach” to juvenile detention and offer additional counseling and resources at the detention center.

Joe Rockey, a former PNC executive and the only Republican in the running for county executive, echoed calls for the county to reinstate some kind of juvenile detention facility, but said officials need to “take the time to understand the juvenile.”

“I believe what we should be focusing on is rehabilitating the individual, giving them an opportunity to understand what's going on,” he said. “How do we help them become successful as they move forward to prepare themselves for adulthood?”

Rockey said that while the facility itself should be publicly run, he would be open to outsourcing some services like counseling.

At a March press conference, County Treasurer John Weinstein called for the county to “reimagine” Shuman Center as a place better equipped to handle the needs of the kids sent there.

“This cannot be a place for just detention. It must be for development. It must be a place where we can show kids the path to a better future. We can do that. We have the resources, and we have the wherewithal. We just need the vision,” he said.

The facility should include rehabilitation services, diversionary programs and workforce training, Weinstein said. However, when Shuman Center was open, most children stayed at the facility for less than 12 days.

Zoe Fuller
90.5 WESA

Not all candidates support reopening a juvenile detention facility.

At the March candidate forum, businessman Will Parker said he does “not want to open Shuman at all, whatsoever.”

He proposed reutilizing the Shuman building as space for the unhoused and noted that what he called the “most violent juveniles” are already being detained at Allegheny County Jail.

“And if we're already having complaints at the Allegheny County Jail, why would we go and open Shuman when we haven't even structurally fixed what's happening at the Allegheny County jail?” he asked.

State Rep. Sara Innamorato emphasized the need for additional mental health care, educational opportunities and other resources for county kids. If the county is to open a youth facility, it should be non-carceral.

“If we open up a new facility, we're going to fill it and we're going to fill it predominantly with Black kids who probably have minor offenses like truancy. And it's unacceptable,” Innamorato said at the March forum. “You shouldn't have to go through a criminal legal system in order to get help and resources that every single child deserves in this county.”

What happens next?

As candidates debate the type of juvenile detention facility the county should invest in, some researchers are suggesting another approach entirely.

Shuman Center is just one in a series of juvenile detention centers across the state that have closed in recent years. The Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima was closed in 2021 after allegations of “physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by staff.” (Though Delaware County officials are moving forward with plans to reestablish a juvenile detention center.)

A spokesperson for the state DHS noted that “License revocations necessitated by safety concerns and facility closures have affected capacity across the juvenile justice system, and fewer beds mean fewer options.”

Juvenile offenders have sometimes been sent to neighboring counties, which can make it more difficult to stay in contact with family, friends and members of their support system.

Now, some advocates are calling for a more community-centered approach to help juvenile offenders.

After Shuman Center shut down in 2021, a group of University of Pittsburgh academics, local professionals and community members spoke with young people who spent time at Shuman Center, as well as teachers, staff and students at a “liberatory educational program” called the Free L.A. School.

Respondents said they often felt unsafe and were subject to violence while at Shuman Center, and said they struggled to “maintain their dignity and get their basic human needs met.”

Others said staff were unprofessional, inconsistent and abusive. And many detailed the need for additional support and resources for mental health, education and their lives outside the detention center.

The resulting report suggests officials “reimagine safety, support, and inclusion for young people and communities in Allegheny County by focusing on mutual accountability and healing rather than punishment.”

“A great deal of research shows that youth detention increases the likelihood of juvenile recidivism. It decreases the likelihood that a young person will graduate from high school. It increases their likelihood of being arrested as an adult,” said Dr. Sara Goodkind, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work who worked on the report. “In other words, detaining a young person does not deter crime.”

Goodkind said the county should provide kids with more support — but they should do so outside of the carceral system. She warned that offering rehabilitation and support in a detention facility can cause “net widening” and bring more people into the legal system, even though support can be provided more effectively outside of that system.

“I think something really important to remember is that youth detention and incarceration indicate a collective failure to protect and care for our children. So, when we end up at that point, that means our previous systems and supports haven't worked,” Goodkind said.

“If we really care about youth and community safety, we don't need to re-imagine Schuman. I think instead we need to build a continuum of support outside of the legal system.”

Democrats and Republicans will choose their candidates for county executive in the May 16 primaries.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at