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Private contractor could undermine future Allegheny County executive's plan for Shuman Center

Zoe Fuller
90.5 WESA
The Shuman Juvenile Detention Center closed in 2021 after the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked the facility’s license

Juvenile justice had been shaping up as a key issue in the race to be the next Allegheny County executive, but the debate has been scrambled after current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced in September that the Court of Common Pleas planned to reopen the former Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

The center is slated to operate under the management of Latrobe-based nonprofit Adelphoi this winter — after voters elect a new county leader.

Democrat Sara Innamorato and Republican Joe Rockey have both questioned that decision, with both candidates agreeing that the county should run the facility, rather than a third party.

Both candidates also have broader juvenile justice proposals, and while they each emphasize the importance of mental health care and other supportive services, they have drawn on different sources of expertise and emphasize different ideas.

‘Definitely not short term’

Rockey’s campaign has accused Innamorato of changing her position on whether the county should have a detention center at all.

When discussing juvenile justice during the primary, Innamorato often discussed the issue so broadly that the detention center itself rarely got mentioned. She emphasized instead the need for prevention and intervention strategies outside the criminal justice system whenever possible.

But during this fall’s first debate of county executive candidates, she declared, “It has become very clear that we do need a juvenile detention center.”

Rockey’s support of the center has been more explicit, though he also says it shouldn’t be punitive.

“We should be treating that juvenile with kid-glove care, but in a separated environment so they're not back literally walking down the street, in some situations, past the victim,” Rockey told WESA. “It is imperative that we give our judges the option to detain.”

He and his campaign, meanwhile, have accused Innamorato of flip-flopping. In the run-up to the spring Democratic primary, the campaign said in a statement, “Every time she talked about it, she said it should not be ‘carceral.’ That’s not a ‘detention’ center.”

Innamorato’s campaign denies having reversed itself. While she has emphasized the need for non-carceral approaches, she has also previously acknowledged that there are cases in which “juvenile detention is necessary to address acts of community violence.”

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In any case, it’s not clear how much immediate impact either candidate could have on the detention center during the life of the new five-year contract with Adelphoi.

While Innamorato and Rockey have reluctantly agreed a third-party operator will run the center in the days ahead, both said the county should ultimately run the detention facility.

“Most people agree that we must get these young people out of the Allegheny County Jail, and if a contractor can help us accomplish this, I can reluctantly accept this,” Innamorato said.

But a five-year contract, she added , is “ not short-term, and I will do everything in my power as county executive to establish a public facility as soon as possible.”

“Five years is definitely not short-term,” Rockey agreed. “The outgoing administration shouldn’t be saddling the next county executive with a contract that basically outsources custody of Allegheny County’s children.”

But the $73 million contract offers the county limited exit options. The county could end the contract only if it is unable to obtain funding to pay for Adelphoi’s services or if Adelphoi violates the contract. And while Adelphoi may terminate the agreement “for its convenience” with 180 days' notice, the county must give a heads-up a full year in advance.

Innamorato has proposed creating an oversight committee, though the contract does not currently include reference to oversight of the facility beyond the controller’s ability to audit it. Pennsylvania’s second-class county code requires a juvenile detention facility advisory board, but the board that oversaw Shuman had no formal statutory authority.

“Every board looks good on paper, but it takes a county executive to appoint independent people and then be committed to act upon the recommendations of those independent individuals and that board,” said attorney Brad Korinski.

Korinski was a member of Shuman Center’s advisory board when he worked for former county controller Chelsa Wagner. He noted that even county bodies with statutory authority, such as the county’s Jail Oversight Board, have struggled to enforce the law. (Among the challenges are tensions within the board itself, largely stemming from disagreements between County Councilor Bethany Hallam and other representatives, particularly those allied with Fitzgerald.)

“A contract is only as good as its oversight,” Korinski said.

County Council also has criticized the contract. In September, it voted to sue Fitzgerald and the Court of Common Pleas for entering into the agreement without the approval of council, which typically has a say in the use of county property.

The contract is receiving some scrutiny: County Controller Corey O’Connor said his office has not finished reviewing it. But such a review does not typically wade into policy questions.

“This is typical,” said O’Connor. “We get a contract and we have some questions.”

‘Places where we provide young people support’

Both campaigns say that juvenile justice has to be about more than merely housing offenders.

Rockey said the reopened facility should be “reimagined” and “rehabilitative,” and he stressed the importance of understanding “what's going on in that child's life.”

He said it could offer drug- and alcohol-related services and health care. But otherwise, he said, details about the services a detention center could provide would have to wait until after the election. He declined to share the names of experts he said were helping his campaign formulate ideas, but said they include “very senior individuals in law enforcement, in criminal justice and in the courts.”

Innamorato’s vision relies on a plan involving “expanded access to mental health care, extracurricular activities and sports, family-friendly recreation centers, paid internships and job training programs, and more." Many community groups provide these services but need more capacity, she said.

“Our approach means engaging communities and experts to determine prevention and intervention strategies that eliminate the need for juvenile detention facilities, reduce crime, and promote the well-being and development of all youth,” she said.

Among the experts Innamorato has spoken to about the issue is Sara Goodkind, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, who joined other researchers to speak with young people about conditions at Shuman Center after it closed.

Respondents said they often felt unsafe and were subject to violence and abusive treatment by staff, and they struggled to “maintain their dignity and get their basic human needs met.” They advocated for additional support and resources for mental health and other needs.

Goodkind said a juvenile detention center could not by itself provide support services effectively. And she said she worried that misconceptions about how the juvenile justice system works have clouded the discussion.

For one thing, detention facilities typically don’t house juveniles for long enough to provide long-term support or training. At the time of its closure, the average stay at Shuman was around 12 days.

“It is important that we have places where we provide young people support and opportunities for rehabilitation. But that is not what is going to happen in a juvenile detention facility,” said Goodkind.

And if those services were housed in detention facilities, it could unwittingly encourage leaders to send more kids into the legal system to get them, she said.

“When we're reimagining safety, we need to think about youth and community safety as interdependent, not as in opposition to one another,” she added.

The election is Nov. 7.

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