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Juvenile detention reforms under consideration

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(The Center Square) – Faced with conditions and attitudes that reflect the culture of adult corrections facilities, the House Children and Youth Committee approved three bills that would better protect juveniles in state detention centers.

The proposals follow a series of scandals across the commonwealth that uncovered instances of inadequate and abusive care.

Notably, Delaware County was forced to close the doors of its detention center in 2021 after allegations of abuse were leveled by the public defender’s office. The grand jury probe that followed resulted in a damning report of the facility, though it stopped short of specific charges.

“Juvenile detention centers should be a place where young people can mature and learn from their mistakes,” said then Attorney General Josh Shapiro. “The grand jury found the system failed to protect these children and provide them with the tools they needed to reform and grow, instead abandoning them in a dangerous environment with little to no oversight.”

Spearheaded by Reps. Liz Hanbridge, D-Blue Bell, and Carol Kazeem, D-Chester, the bills make good on the grand jury’s recommendations to improve conditions statewide.

The package – House Bills 1767, 973 and 1766 – aims for greater transparency and a clear chain of accountability to avoid the kind of closed-door impunity seen in Delaware County.

HB 1767 would limit the use of room seclusion to four hours within a 24-hour period without a court order. Hanbridge described the practice as “detrimental” to children, saying “we don’t want to further harm this population that we’re trying to rehabilitate.”

Amongst adults, solitary confinement, which consists of 22.5 hours of isolation in a given 24-hour period, has been shown to have a severe toll both physically and psychologically on prisoners.

Some representatives favored the spirit of the bill but questioned the means of its execution, which currently suggests criminal penalties for violations of the proposed guidelines.

“In a time when there is a workforce crisis and it’s so extremely hard to get staffers in these jobs, is there not a concern that exposing them to potential criminal liability is going to make it that much harder to get staff members hired or to retain them?” said Rep. Charity Grimm Krupa, R-McClellandtown.

The question reveals the systemic issues that have made reform a thorny issue. The grand jury cited a top-down failure at the Delaware County facility, determining that individual criminal punishment for underpaid and overworked facility staff would be both difficult to pursue and fail to hold accountable those in leadership responsible for current conditions.

HB 973 would expand the power of the Department of Human Services to respond to these kinds of violations and issue penalties and fines before revoking licensure.

HB 1766 would require all abuse allegations from a facility to be reported to judges, public defenders, school districts, families, the district attorney overseeing the area in which the facility is located, facility staff, youth held in the facility and the board of managers for juvenile detention facilities.

“We are putting the interests of children first, not the interests of administrators, not the interests of facilities, not the interests of people who don’t want to do the work,” emphasized Majority Committee Chairwoman Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia.