The city of Philadelphia is asking a judge to compel the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to take custody of more than 70 minors sentenced in court to state rehabilitation programs, in hopes of alleviating what is seen as dangerous overcrowding. in the city’s detention facilities.
In the lawsuit filed Friday, city attorneys said the state has refused to prioritize transferring minors from the overcrowded juvenile justice center. The city is asking a judge to order the state to take sentenced juveniles within 20 days and contract with a private or public facility or open a state facility to handle the surge of juveniles sentenced to state facilities.
Workers at the Philadelphia youth center spoke last week at a City Council hearing about worsening conditions at the center that is designed to temporarily house up to 184 youth ages 10 to 17 awaiting court proceedings. But as of last Friday, the lawsuit said the center had reached 223 minors, 74 of whom had been sentenced to state facilities and were awaiting transfer.
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A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services declined to comment on the litigation Monday. In a statement issued after the City Council hearing last week, department officials said state facilities are also full.
“There is no refusal to serve; the issue at hand is the need to maintain safe operations at our facilities as well,” department spokeswoman Ali Fogarty wrote.
The statement noted that the department cannot unilaterally discharge minors into its state treatment units to make room. It also placed the responsibility on counties to contract with public or private entities to house minors until they are transferred if they need more space.
But Philadelphia officials said they have been asking for help for nearly three years.
“For too long, the Commonwealth has failed in this fundamental duty. The City, in good faith, pleaded with state officials to meet their obligations and prevent the crisis we are now seeing,” Vanessa Garrett Harley, Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia for the Office. of Children and Families said in an emailed statement Monday. “Over the months, unfortunately, no meaningful action was taken on their part and empty promises were made.”
Facility staff said more than 20 minors currently sleep on mattresses on the floor in the admissions portion of the facility, which is not designed to house them. They also said that the population increase combined with staff shortages has meant that children have not been able to leave their cells or housing areas to go to school, eat or play because moving around the facilities has become dangerous.
In the lawsuit, city attorneys said it took the state an average of 20 days to transfer youth in 2019, but many of the 74 minors awaiting transfer have been waiting for four to five months. And minors awaiting transfer do not receive credit toward their sentence.
Unlike adults who are sentenced to a specific jail term, minors are sentenced to complete rehabilitation programs such as anger management, drug or alcohol treatment, or other programs. Those can sometimes take three or six months to complete, but the city detention center does not run those programs.
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The lawsuit says city officials have been trying for nearly three years to work with the state to address overcrowding, but problems came to a head in early October when minors held in the maximum-security area overwhelmed the staff and forced their way into a common area. room. Staff said the fight left more than a dozen employees and at least one resident with injuries, some seriously, and police had to be called to help disperse the minors to their units.