The Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy Allegheny County)

Allegheny County is looking for a company to operate a privately run juvenile detention center, just over a year after its own Shuman Juvenile Detention Center closed with no apparent plan to replace it. 

Though there is broad agreement among government officials and judges that the county needs such a facility, some experts and elected officials are questioning the decision to privatize what had been a county-run operation until the September 2021 closure.

The county is moving to sell the former Shuman site to a developer, with a “strong preference” for a developer that would operate a juvenile detention facility, according to a request for proposals released Oct. 6. Some members of county council are skeptical of the move, though, and are concerned about the financial and quality-control implications of privatization.

The state revoked the sparsely populated facility’s license last fall after a string of violations, including medication errors, a heroin overdose and thefts. Rather than try to regain certification, the county administration abruptly decided to close the facility. 

Judges, law enforcement and elected officials have said recently that a new juvenile detention center is sorely needed in the county, but the decision on who operates it appears to rest with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s administration. 

“The availability of juvenile detention beds is one of the most important issues facing the court right now,” said President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark at a county council hearing Tuesday night. She said the inability to detain youth who commit “serious offenses” presents a “serious issue in terms of community safety and protection.”

Last year, judges in Allegheny County held 198 detention hearings involving juvenile offenders, and hearing officers held another 365. The court system’s annual report does not say how many were detained. 

In a press release at the time of the closure last year, County Manager William McKain said youth could be sent to detention facilities in other counties. It’s unclear whether the county viewed that as a long-term solution, and a spokesperson did not address that question when it was posed by PublicSource.

But at Tuesday’s hearing, Clark said available beds are hard to come by — some youths are even sent out of state to Jefferson County, Ohio, she said — and as a result Allegheny County judges don’t typically have the option to commit a child to a detention center with Shuman closed. 

Public or private?

Until its closure, the county’s Department of Human Services operated Shuman Center with an annual budget of about $10 million. It’s too soon to know whether a private company would cost the county more or less. 

The decision to seek a private-sector solution came as a surprise to members of council when it was brought to their attention at Tuesday’s budget hearing. At least a handful of them are skeptical of the move.

Councilwoman Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis said in an interview that prospective operators would need to be reviewed carefully.

“We have to make certain that we’re going about it in the best interest of the youth,” said Naccarati-Chapkis, emphasizing the value of rehabilitation and life skills training. “I would be concerned that a for-profit facility would have competing interests and not center the goals that we want to see at the forefront.”

Jeffrey Shook, a social work professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said there are few differences between the environments at privately operated juvenile detention centers compared to public facilities. However, private operators — whether for-profit or nonprofit — may have their own financial motivations. 

“When you build a facility based on a contract, you often get paid based on the beds that are filled,” he said. “I’m just not a believer in that kind of model at all. We should hope to have empty beds.”

County Controller Corey O’Connor likewise said he’d be concerned about the financial implications. “Private companies are out to make money and that’s not generally in the public’s interest,” he said.

Councilman Bobby Palmosina, chair of the council’s budget and finance committee, said he would prefer the facility be run by the county directly, citing concerns about oversight and transparency with a private operation.

“With what [the county] has at the Health Department and the Department of Human Services, I believe we could put the right people in place to give children what they need,” Palmosina said.

Councilwoman Olivia Bennett said, “I do not agree with privatization at all.”

Council President Pat Catena, who like Naccarati-Chapkis and Palmosina was caught off guard by the privatization move, said he needed to see more details before passing judgment on the administration’s plans. 

Catena and others noted, though, that the specter of the Luzerne County “Kids for Cash” scandal looms over any decision to privatize juvenile detention. Two judges there were convicted after they closed a county juvenile detention facility, sent children to a for-profit facility and collected millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks. 

Amie Downs, the county executive’s spokesperson, did not answer PublicSource’s questions about why the county is looking to privatize the operation rather than revisit a county-run model. She said the RFP was released after “discussion with the courts about its needs.”

Companies have until Oct. 28 to submit proposals to the county, and it’s not known how long the county will take to select one, if it selects one at all. McKain told the budget committee that the administration would seek council approval for the chosen proposal.

Dennis Jones, a former member of the county’s now-defunct Juvenile Detention Board, is “very, very leery” of privatizing the center because he worries it will jeopardize the transparency of its operations. But he was similarly concerned about the oversight mechanisms that were in place at the former Shuman Center. 

Jones, executive director of the nonprofit Youth Enrichment Services, said the former board was “pretty much non-functional.” Members were rarely provided with information about issues within the center and had little real input or contribution to its operations. 

“We were really nothing more than a figurehead, and for that I feel very sad. I feel like we need to apologize to the citizens of the county,” Jones said.

Does the county need Shuman?

Council members, the judicial branch and the county executive agree on at least one thing: A year after Shuman’s closure, the county needs a replacement. Most say they need it badly, even though only 20 children were detained in the facility when it closed. 

Clark, who as president judge is at the top of the county’s judicial branch, left little room for debate at Tuesday’s council hearing.

“At this particular time, we just need it to open,” Clark said. “It’s really frustrating and we’re really, seriously concerned for the safety not just of the community but of many of the juveniles who are charged in these serious offenses [and] can be targets themselves” while their case works its way through the courts. “Detention is really what needs to happen for some of them.”

McKain said Tuesday that the administration now thinks the community needs the facility back up and running. He said a developer could open a facility to serve the broader Western Pennsylvania region, rather than only Allegheny County. Clark said she spoke with president judges from other counties who told her they would make use of such a hub.

The union representing Shuman Center staff held a press conference in late 2021 to urge the county to keep the facility open. (Photo by Charlie Wolfson/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who has no control over legal or correctional systems but is responsible for the county’s largest police force, said at a Monday news conference that, “We should have never closed Shuman without a plan.” 

Pittsburgh Police Commander Richard Ford said at the news conference that without a detention center, youth are “being released that are repeat offenders, with previous gun charges, and they’re still out there.” 

Bennett said whether the new facility is county-run or private, it must improve on the way Shuman operated prior to its closure. 

“What they had before was always out of compliance,” Bennett said. “I want to have something actually up to par on how a juvenile detention center should be operating.”

Sara Goodkind, a social work professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said many discussions about opening juvenile detention facilities pit youth against their communities. For a facility to be successful in deterring youth crime, the county will have to take supplementary actions to improve young people’s safety, like addressing barriers that keep them from accessing basic needs or mental health care.

“When young people are safe in their communities, in their schools, in their homes, then we will all be safer,” she said. “And that is the best prevention.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.

Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at amelia@publicsource.org

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...

photo of amelia winder

Amelia Winger is a health reporter for PublicSource, with a focus on mental health. She is telling solutions-oriented stories that combine human experiences with broader context about data and policies....