Future of Youth Detention Hangs in Balance of Pittsburgh Election
The powerful position of Allegheny County executive is open this year, and social workers are pushing the candidates in Tuesday’s primary to not re-open a local juvenile jail.
Alex Burness, | May 10, 2023
The Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in northeast Pittsburgh detained as many as 139 kids at its peak in 2006, when the red brick lockup ran over its licensed capacity of 120. But youth detention in Allegheny County gradually shrank amid efforts to reduce incarceration for minor violations like truancy, to the point that just 20 kids were held there when Shuman closed in September 2021 after Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services revoked its license. Its investigation had uncovered “gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct,” including staff leaving children unattended and a boy overdosing on heroin inside the facility.
Allegheny County hasn’t operated a facility dedicated to youth incarceration since then, and instead has shipped kids to detention centers in other counties and sometimes even outside the state, while also implementing more at-home supervision like ankle monitors.
Heading into Tuesday’s election for county executive, which could determine the future of youth detention in the Pittsburgh region, social workers and reform advocates who’ve worked closely with Allegheny County kids are imploring the leading candidates to reject any new youth jail and to support alternatives that keep kids in their homes and communities.
“We want as few young people out of their homes as possible,” Sara Goodkind, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh who co-authored a broad report about Shuman last year, told Bolts. “We know through decades of research that youth detention is associated with increases in recidivism, decreased chances of graduating high school and an increased chance of being arrested as an adult.”
The outgoing county executive, Rich Fitzgerald, cannot run for re-election. In February he announced his intent to “re-establish a county-run facility, or to create a public-private partnership” for juvenile detention in Allegheny County, but has not revealed any plan or proposed timeline since then. Fitzgerald’s successor will have a four-year term and will be instrumental in whatever happens next, as they will inherit broad power over contracts, administrative appointments, and capital budgeting for any potential new or repurposed facility.
The candidates looking to replace him have signaled they’d take the county in different directions. Two of the Democrats who lead in polling, John Weinstein and Michael Lamb, say Shuman should be reopened, though with structural improvements to the building, either for the long term or until the county can replace it with a better facility.
A third frontrunner in the Democratic primary, Sara Innamorato, a progressive lawmaker who led the field in one public survey last week, has taken a more open stance, questioning whether the county really needs a juvenile lockup.
The Democratic primary victor will face Republican Joe Rockey, who declined to be interviewed for this story but who, according to the Pittsburgh radio station WESA, also believes the county must reopen a youth detention facility. He faces steep odds in this strongly Democratic area in the November general election, polling far behind his potential opponents.
Like the ongoing debates over the adult criminal legal system’s disproportionate impact on Black neighborhoods in this highly segregated area, the varying proposals for youth incarceration carry particularly high stakes for Black children and families in Allegheny County. The ACLU of Pennsylvania found that Black students grades 5-12 in Allegheny County were arrested at nearly nine times the rate of white students during the 2018-2019 school year, and that Allegheny County arrested students at more than double the statewide rate and nearly four times the rate in Philadelphia.
As of Wednesday, 31 kids 17 or younger were incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail, the adult facility, according to county reports. Twenty-eight of them were Black.
Weinstein, the Allegheny County Treasurer and one of the leading candidates in the Democratic primary for county executive, believes that closing Shuman sent a signal that children can commit crimes without threat of punishment. Youth gun violence has increased dramatically since 2020 in the area, and local police have pointed to examples of children sent home after being arrested and accused of violent acts.
“Kids are not stupid. They know there’s no Shuman Center and they’ll push the envelope,” Weinstein told Bolts. “There’s no fear now.”
He continued, “The police officers know this. I’ve talked to judges, and they’re unbelievably frustrated by it. Even if they’re putting ankle bracelets on, the kids go out and commit the crimes with the bracelet on.”
Weinstein called for reopening Shuman with more mental health staff and workforce training than previously existed there.
“We’re gonna rebrand it, totally revamp it,” he said.
Lamb, the Pittsburgh City Controller and another leader in Democratic primary polling, says that Shuman likely needs to reopen, albeit maybe only in the near-term until Allegheny County can find a better facility to house children accused of violent crimes, like assault.
“First and foremost, I do believe we need a center for juvenile detention,” Lamb told Bolts. He said it’s important that any new center not look or feel like a traditional jail—like Shuman, with its sally port entry, intake station, and cells with concrete floors, metal toilets, and skinny windows.
Lamb criticized the current practice of shipping kids to other detention centers up to a three-hour drive away from Pittsburgh, but also said he wanted Allegheny County to make space to house children accused of crimes in some of the 55 out of 67 Pennsylvania counties that currently don’t have their own youth detention centers. According to a state report, the percentage of children detained more than 100 miles from home increased tenfold between 2012 and 2021, from 2 percent to 19 percent.
Goodkind said she worries some county officials are too focused on how the next center should be designed.
“My concern is these proposals to build a fancy, new, kinder, gentler youth detention center,” she said. “I think we need a vision of a world where youth incarceration is obsolete. And to get there, we can’t be focusing on our efforts to have a better detention center.”
Tammy Hughes, a school psychologist and professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said officials don’t have to strain to imagine a world in which kids who break the law aren’t incarcerated. As in other states, many Pennsylvania counties have recently gotten rid of juvenile detention centers in favor of more home confinement or other in-the-community options. Fifteen juvenile detention centers around the state closed between 2006 and 2021, the state reported.
Hughes pointed out that non-white kids are referred to the juvenile justice system more often even though white youth often commit crimes at similar rates.
“This place really leans into punishing Black and brown kids,” Hughes said. “This starts in preschool. We see three-year-olds in our clinic, expelled for ripping papers off the wall, for noncompliance, talking back, not listening. That’s an application of rules gone awry. That’s ‘zero tolerance.’ But with white kids we give a lot of grace, like, ‘I know I made mistakes when I was 14.’”
Innamorato, a state Representative, is the only leading candidate in the Democratic primary for county executive who isn’t convinced Allegheny County needs to re-open Shuman or replace it with another detention center. She hasn’t committed to opening any particular facility, but says if the county does re-establish one under her watch, it would need to be non-carceral. She told Bolts that even children accused of violent crimes should not be held in traditional jail cells.
“I’m really trying to separate the two conversations,” she said. “We tend to talk about Shuman Center as a building that is there and should be repurposed and so what is it going to be? I want to flip that conversation and say, ‘What do our young people need so they don’t end up in a detention facility?’”
Innamorato told Bolts that the University of Pittsburgh research project Goodkind co-authored, titled “Post-Shuman Visioning,” was foundational to her current views on juvenile crime and detention in the county. In the absence of any firm plan for the future of youth detention in the county, Goodkind said, her team saw an opportunity to center the experiences of children who had been previously jailed inside Shuman. When asked about their time at Shuman, they overwhelmingly said they wished for more counseling and therapy, with specific resources for those who had experienced sexual violence and other forms of trauma. They asked for more structured activities, training in financial literacy and education on their own legal rights, and more opportunities to connect with their families. One child told the researchers that Shuman was a place that “grooms kids for crime, not healing.”
Innamorato told Bolts, “If we aren’t intentional about the way that we’re architecting this system moving forward, we’re going to continue to put kids through a system that hurts them further, and then put them out in the world where they don’t have access to resources. And we expect them to thrive?”
If Innamorato wins and charts a new path that doesn’t involve replacing Shuman with another youth lockup, it would build on other victories for criminal justice reformers in western Pennsylvania. In 2021, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to ban solitary confinement in Allegheny County, although the county’s adult jail has continued the practice. That same year, Pittsburgh elected Ed Gainey mayor after he ran on a platform of racial justice; local police accountability advocates say they have confidence in him. Other elections next week could change the course of the criminal legal system in Allegheny County: in addition to key county council races, the county’s longtime and punitive district attorney faces a public defender who has secured key endorsements and appears viable.
People who have worked with kids in Shuman and in similar settings told Bolts that next week’s election could signal another turning point for youth detention in Allegheny County. Jeff Shook, a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, said that he’s urging whoever wins to prioritize community investments that aren’t based in punishment and incarceration.
“If you invest in health care, people do better, and you have less crime,” Shook said. “If you invest in education, young people do better, and there’s less crime. We need to raise wages. We need to think about what the pathway is to good jobs, to jobs that are sustainable and promote wellbeing. I think those are the conversations we should be having, as opposed to asking, ‘What kind of center should we build?’”
Bolts is closely covering the ramifications of Pennsylvania‘s 2023 elections for voting rights and criminal justice.
Explore our coverage of the elections in the run-up to the May 16 primaries.