Westmoreland County's juvenile detention center affected by teens charged as adults
Rich Gordon is director of Westmoreland County's juvenile detention center, but on some days, it feels like “we're running an adult jail,” he said.
Behind the walls of the Regional Youth Services Center in Hempfield are three teens charged as adults in high-profile, violent crimes who can't be housed in adult prisons because of a federal law that took effect in 2012.
It took some time for the effects of the law to be felt in Westmoreland County, but in the last 11 months, the unprecedented influx of youths charged as adults has been costly to the detention center and has sparked concerns that it could lead to overcrowding at the 12-bed facility.
• In April, the center took custody of Alex Hribal of Murrysville, who was 16 when he was accused of trying to kill 20 classmates and a security guard at Franklin Regional High School.
• Maxwell Morton, 16, has been held at the facility since his arrest Feb. 10 on charges he shot and killed his friend, Ryan Mangan, 16, in Jeannette. Police said Morton used his cellphone to take a picture of himself with the victim afterward.
• This month, the facility took custody of Todd Johnson, 17, of Kittanning Township, Armstrong County, which doesn't have a juvenile facility. Johnson is charged with killing 18-year-old Derrike Roppolo of Leechburg while trying to steal marijuana from him.
Until 2012, all three would have been sent to the county jail, according to Warden John Walton, who said his lockup routinely housed one or two juveniles a year before the Prison Rape Elimination Act took effect. The law was enacted in 2003, but it took nearly a decade for the federal government to implement it.
The law is intended to reduce sexual assaults on inmates of any age but specifically bars placing juveniles in adult prisons.
Although the overall number of juveniles detained in any facility has decreased from 105,055 in 1997, to 61,423 in 2011, studies don't necessarily show that youths are completely safe from sexual assaults in juvenile facilities, according to Allen J. Beck, senior administrator at the U.S. Bureau of Juvenile Statistics.
The bureau's most recent study showed nearly 10 percent of youths in juveniles facilities across the nation reported being sexually assaulted one or more times in a 12-month period.
Walton said Westmoreland County started to look at the ramifications of the law amid the flurry of national media attention on Hribal's arrest.
At this stage, the greatest impact is financial.
The shift has cost the juvenile detention center more than $180,000 in state subsidies since April. The state makes payments to the center to house juveniles but won't pay for juveniles charged as adults, Gordon said.
Armstrong County is paying Westmoreland $199 a day to house Johnson.
One court official said although space is not an issue at this point, it could very well become one if the trend continues.
“It's not a problem right now, but we should have a solution,” said Judge Michele Bononi, who serves in the county's juvenile court division. “We need to start investigating solutions.”
County Commissioner Tyler Courtney said four beds can be added to the detention center at no cost and with no approval from the state.
“We can't do anything else right now. We have no other options,” he said.
Gordon said housing the three teens alongside other youths charged with lesser crimes, ranging from robbery to aggravated assault, has not been a problem from a safety standpoint. He said the inmates are not segregated, and treatment of all the juveniles is the same, whether they are charged as adults or juveniles.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.