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Lack of inmates plagues Regional Youth Services Center

| Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, 12:05 a.m.

Nearly two years after the opening of the newly renovated Regional Youth Services Center, the Westmoreland County facility has struggled to fill its beds.

The youth inmate population fell to just one juvenile earlier this month, and county commissioners were forced to lay off four staffers at the Hempfield facility.

“We're not operating it at the optimal ability,” Commissioner Tyler Courtney said.

The county reopened the juvenile detention center in October 2010 after spending nearly $5 million to upgrade the 30-year-old facility.

The old 24-bed center for troubled youths was recast as a 12-bed detention center with a behavioral unit, juvenile probation offices and conference rooms.

The building was redesigned to include a youth shelter for as many as eight runaways and truants. The shelter portion of the center has been operating near capacity, officials said.

Director Pete Chapman said the detention facility averages 65 percent capacity, meaning nearly a third of the beds are typically empty.

“There will always be a need for some level of detention,” Chapman said.

The number of young inmates in the facility has always been a moving target.

While the number reached a low of just one person two weeks ago, as of late Friday afternoon, there were 11 juveniles being held in the center.

Still, commissioners in early October approved laying off four workers, a move that is permitted under the labor agreement with the Service Employees International Union, which represents guards and support staff at the institution.

Eleven employees remain, although one of the laid-off staffers could soon be recalled, Chapman said.

Chapman said that across Pennsylvania, fewer juveniles are being placed in detention centers.

Private facilities that offer more programs are dealing with increases, he said.

Still, county officials must figure out how to better use the facility, Chapman said.

“We've challenged our administrators who run it to reach out to other counties” to house young inmates in Westmoreland County, Courtney said.

Courtney said the small population numbers at the facility raise questions about the need for the multimillion renovation project approved by the previous board of commissioners.

“The numbers right now don't justify or warrant putting $4.5 million in improvements into it,” Courtney said.

Commissioner Ted Kopas defended the project, which was approved by his former boss, former commissioner Tom Balya.

“The place was in need of renovation, and we created a youth shelter,” Kopas said. “It's too early now to say that detention trends are permanent but it certainly warrants a closer inspection.”

The renovation plan was a scaled-down version of a project pitched in 2003 to enlarge the facility from 24 to 36 beds.

Commissioners originally borrowed $10 million for that project but the plan sat as the juvenile inmate population diminished. Officials decided to whittle down the number of beds and establish the shelter to replace one that had closed in Greensburg.

“It's too early to speculate on the long-term future of that facility,” Kopas said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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