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Westmoreland juvenile detention center vying for inmates

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland County might reduce rates for juvenile detention beds as part of a new marketing effort to fill its renovated center in Hempfield.

Westmoreland officials said lowering the cost to house inmates from other jurisdictions might offset a national trend of declining numbers of young offenders being held in detention facilities. They house high-risk children, up to age 18, convicted of violent crimes. About one-third of the space is usually empty at the 12-bed Regional Youth Services Center, which charges other counties a daily rate of $276 to house offenders.

County officials are contemplating cutting the rates by nearly 28 percent — to $199 a day — to compete with other facilities, most notably a detention center in Steubenville, Ohio, that houses young offenders from Western Pennsylvania.

Rich Gordon, the interim director of Westmoreland County's Regional Youth Services Center, said the price cut might entice other counties looking for deals.

“This will be like Hotwire for juvenile detention,” he said, referring to a website that offers travel deals.

Westmoreland's center, like others throughout the United States, is struggling to fill its beds. Last year, there were some days when it held no detainees or a sole occupant.

According to statistics from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there were more than 105,000 children behind bars in 1997. By 2010, that number dropped to less than 71,000, according to the most recent numbers available.

As those numbers declined, Westmoreland spent $4.5 million to renovate its facility, reducing its size from 24 to 12 cells.

The county installed an eight-bed shelter for troubled and dependent children on the other side of the building. Children in these facilities are considered less violent and require less supervision. Others are abandoned by parents, considered too problematic for foster care or labeled as chronic truants or runaways.

“We're contemplating switching sides” to give more space to shelter use, Gordon said, noting that might create a higher demand.

The Jefferson County Juvenile Detention Center in Steubenville, a 20-bed facility, this week had 24 children in custody, said its director, Bill Ward.

Ward said the center, which opened in 1998, serves counties in Ohio and western Pennsylvania — including Beaver, Butler, Washington, Venango and Fayette.

“I don't think it's all dollars and cents when you work with people's lives,” Ward said. “It's a combination of cost and quality.”

The Steubenville center charges other counties about $135 a day to house high-risk youthful offenders.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, the only juvenile detention centers are in Pittsburgh and Hempfield. Others are in Erie and Cambria counties.

Wayne Bear, executive director of the Juvenile Detention Center Association of Pennsylvania, said young inmates should be housed within the state, regardless of cost.

The Ohio facility is cheaper, Bear said, because its staffing requirements are far less restrictive than those in Pennsylvania, which mandates more guards to be on duty.

“I think the kids who are from Pennsylvania should stay in Pennsylvania,” Bear said.

He acknowledged that detention centers in Pennsylvania are struggling to fill beds because more judges are sentencing children to treatment centers and private residential programs, rather than jail programs.

Greg Rosatelli, director of Beaver County's Juvenile Services, said his county currently has two children housed in Steubenville. Cost and the relatively short distance, about a half-hour drive, are the main factors contributing to use of the center, Rosatelli said.

Beaver County is looking to move more dependent children to less-restrictive shelter programs and contracts with a shelter in Greenville, he said.

Rosatelli said Westmoreland's shelter, at a reduced rate, could offer another option. “Westmoreland County hasn't reached out to us yet, but we would consider it,” he said.

Washington County has a contract with the Ohio center to house up to seven young offenders, said Tom Jess, assistant court administrator. It costs about one-third of the price to put them up in Pennsylvania, and the Ohio center is only 40 minutes away.

“The per diem is important, but what they provide to us is hard to beat,” Jess said.

Westmoreland County has contracts to house juvenile inmates from Fayette, Somerset, Greene, Armstrong and Indiana counties. Fayette officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Gordon said reduced rates for both detention and shelter services could be in place next year. “Money is tight for everyone, and folks are looking for different options,” he 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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