Westmoreland juvenile detention center wants to expand

| Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Empty beds once prompted Westmoreland County officials to lay off staff and lower the cost for other counties to house children in the juvenile detention center.

On Monday, its administrator told county commissioners the Regional Youth Services Center in Hempfield needs to be expanded.

Director Rich Gordon proposed adding space to accommodate four more juveniles in the center.

“There are too many Westmoreland County kids in trouble,” Gordon said.

The facility, built more than three decades ago to house 24 juvenile offenders, was scaled back during a renovation project completed in 2010.

That $4.5 million project established eight beds for a youth shelter program and reduced the juvenile detention operation to 12 offenders. At the time, the inmate population at such facilities was decreasing across the nation.

Even with the reduced number of beds, the Westmoreland facility struggled.

The county laid off staff last year as population numbers sagged. Some days, there were no juveniles in the detention center.

Late last year, county commissioners lowered the rate it charges other counties from $276 to $199 a day in an effort to lure business.

Gordon said there were seven youths in the center on Monday.

Through the first three months of the year, the center averaged nearly nine juveniles a day.

Two weeks ago, there were too many juveniles in the center, prompting the county to send several youths to a detention center in Cambria County, officials said.

“You see a spiral there, that when the weather breaks the numbers go up,” said Westmoreland Juvenile Court Judge Michele Bononi.

Gordon said the center has been housing three juveniles who are charged with adult crimes, including Franklin Regional High School sophomore Alex Hribal, who is charged with 21 counts each of attempted murder and aggravated assault in an April 9 knifing rampage in the Murrysville school.

Because Hribal and two other teenagers facing adult charges are not in the juvenile court system, the county receives no state reimbursements to help defray the costs to house them.

“Three of our beds are taken up with youthful offenders (charged as adults), so right now, we're a nine-bed facility,” Gordon said.

County commissioners said on Monday they would be receptive to increasing the number of beds in the facility. Gordon said there would be no cost to do so.

Space for the beds is available, and no staff would be added.

The county must pass a state inspection to qualify for a regulatory license for the beds that would be added. That process could take several months, Gordon said.

“Our numbers have increased. Prior to that, they were low — low to the point where we were laying off staff,” Gordon 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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