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Juvenile detention center in Hempfield adds beds to fill need

| Tuesday, July 26, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Capacity of the Regional Youth Services Center in Hempfield has been increased from 12 to 16 beds to fill a need left by the closing of a facility in Cambria County last month.

“We're ready to go,” said Dirk Matson, Westmoreland County human services director. “We think we will get some additional revenue for this by (housing) juveniles from other counties.”

The facility and the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Pittsburgh are the only two left serving southwestern Pennsylvania since Cambria closed its 12-bed center.

Built in 1979 to house 24 juveniles, the Westmoreland center in 2010 went through a $4.5 million renovation that cut the number of beds to 12 and added an eight-bed, less-secure wing for youths charged with minor offenses.

In 2013, county commissioners reduced staff at the facility as the inmate census dipped to the point there were times when no juveniles were being held. In an effort to fill beds in late 2014, commissioners cut the rate they charged other counties by nearly 28 percent, to $199 a day, to house youths.

Since then, the number of juveniles at the facility has risen. James Ringdal, director of the center, said eight beds were filled Tuesday and in June the facility had a 79 percent occupancy rate. Most of the juveniles housed at the facility were from Westmoreland County.

“With the closing of the facility in Cambria County, we anticipate more counties will use us, so we're making ourself prepared,” Ringdal said.

Officials have contracts with several neighboring counties to take their youth offenders. Contracts with as many as 14 counties could be signed this year, according to Ringdal.

Wayne Bear, executive director of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Detention Center and Alternative Program Association, said there is a need for a regional center in southwest Pennsylvania.

As of July 1, 15 juvenile detention centers existed in Pennsylvania, down from 23 in 2002. The number of beds has decreased over that time period from 817 to 714, Bear said. Other than Shuman Center in Pittsburgh, the next closest facilities are in Erie and Centre counties.

“It's getting too costly to keep them open. That's been a challenge at the local level,” Bear said.

National trends indicate fewer youths are being sent to juvenile detention, Bear said. In Pennsylvania, about 22,000 juveniles were placed in detention a decade ago. That number dropped to about 15,000 last year.

“Juvenile arrests are down, and there have been philosophical changes,” Bear said.

Still, with so few facilities available, he said Westmoreland's center could flourish.

That's what local officials are counting on.

“With these extra beds, we will be able to take on other county's kids without turning away our county kids,” Matson said.

Ringdal said there will be no cost to expand. The facility was constructed to house additional beds, and at this point no additional staff will be hired.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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