This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Nicole Luster said her 15-year-old son’s first time away from home was the over three months he spent at the Allegheny County Jail.
“He did have a couple of breakdowns where he felt like he wanted to kill himself, and that tore me apart because I’m a parent and I’m supposed to protect him and rescue him,” Luster said. “It’s just so sad when there’s nothing that you can do, and it’s out of your hands.”
On Luster’s son’s first night back, he was met with cake and balloons. She said he took a hot shower, got into pajamas and ate a big dinner — he couldn’t stomach the food at the ACJ for the first 2½ weeks he was there.
Luster’s son entered the ACJ in December 2021, the month Allegheny County implemented the 2018 reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act, which added key amendments to the old legislature and is aimed at pulling juveniles out of adult lockups.
The reauthorization gave states three years to comply and added provisions to keep kids out of adult jails and prisons, including holding limits and mandatory court hearings. But Allegheny County holds more kids in the ACJ than before it implemented the act nearly two years ago.
According to the ACJ’s population dashboard, when Allegheny County implemented the reauthorization in December 2021, the jail held 21 kids charged as adults. As of Nov. 15, 2023, it holds 25 kids.
The reauthorization requires courts to hold a hearing every 30 days for each juvenile held at an adult facility to determine “if it is in the interest of justice” to keep them there, according to the legislature. These hearings are often referred to as “interest of justice” hearings.
“[The reauthorization] doesn’t stop you from charging a kid as an adult or sentencing a child as an adult,” said Marcy Mistrett, the former co-chair of Act4JJ, a national coalition that advocated for the passage of the reauthorization. “It just says you’re innocent till proven guilty, and if you are a child, you should be in a youth facility pending your trial.”
Under Pennsylvania’s Act 33, kids 15 and older who are charged with certain crimes, such as murder, armed robbery or other violent offenses involving a weapon, automatically enter the adult court system.
Pennsylvania is one of only 13 states with no limit on how young a juvenile can be tried in adult court and exposed to adult jails and prisons.
Luster said while her son was at the ACJ, he didn’t receive a single interest of justice hearing. She said he attended a preliminary hearing and a bond hearing and was released on house arrest in March 2022.
Christopher Connors, the chief deputy court administrator for the Fifth Judicial District, declined to comment on the interest of justice procedures in Luster’s son’s case “given the inability to identify” the involved child.
Since implementing the reauthorization, Allegheny County held 249 hearings to decide if kids should be transferred out of the jail; they only removed one as a result, according to an Oct. 20 email from Joseph Asturi, the director of communications and intergovernmental affairs for the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania.
A hearing defense submitted by Sarah E. Linder Marx, an assistant public defender, in October 2022 said Allegheny County “appears to be an outlier in the way it continues to hold children in its adult jail.” The brief was filed on behalf of a 15-year-old sent to the ACJ for a fatal shooting in 2021.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of kids in adult jails dropped nationally from 3,220 in 2018 to 1,960 in 2021. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County housed 36 children in its jail in July 2015 but only 11 by August 2022, according to the Philadelphia Prison Report.
“I think that Allegheny County can do better,” said Mistrett, who is also the senior program manager of the Restorative Justice Project. “If the rest of the country can do this, if Alabama can do this, if Georgia can do this — Pittsburgh can do this. If Rikers Island can do this, if Chicago can do this — Pittsburgh can do this.”
Asturi said the courts are unable to transfer kids out of jail and into juvenile facilities due to a lack of available detention beds.
Allegheny County has operated without a juvenile jail since September 2021 when the Department of Human Services revoked the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center’s operating license due to unsafe conditions.
Asturi said the courts are complying with the reauthorization and noted the decision to transfer someone after a mandated interest of justice hearing depends on several factors, including available bed space.
“Philadelphia has a detention center. Allegheny County does not,” Asturi told PINJ in an email. “Allegheny County will be able to reduce the number of juveniles in jail once Shuman Center is reopened and [interest of justice] detention beds are available.”
Mistrett argued that a lack of available detention beds isn’t an issue exclusive to Allegheny County and noted other districts nationally have been able to remove juveniles from their adult facilities. She said Allegheny County, “is not living up to the spirit of the law.”
Allegheny County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, D-at-large, said when Shuman closed, the kids held there were either sent home with ankle monitors or sent to juvenile detention centers in other counties. She said these should be placement options to transfer kids in the interest of justice cases.
“It's purely a policy decision that they are holding kids in the ACJ instead of any one of those various facilities,” Hallam said.
“It is not a policy decision; it is a lack of available detention beds,” Asturi said in an email. “Due to the closure of Shuman Center, Allegheny County has no detention beds available for juveniles on [interest of justice] cases, leaving the court without options.”
The reauthorization also states kids shall not be held in any jail or lockup for adults for more than 180 days unless the court determines there is good cause for an extension or the juvenile expressly waives this limitation.
According to the population dashboard, kids on average spend 116 days at the jail, but Jesse Geleynse, the public information officer for the jail, told PINJ in an Oct. 13 email two individuals have been held there since 2021.
Mistrett said time moves faster for kids and that two years can have a great impact on a child’s development.
“That could be the difference between eighth grade and 10th grade,” Mistrett said. “I just feel like you're setting somebody up for really, really tragic life outcomes, and that does not make our community safe.”
To be compliant with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the ACJ separates kids by sight and sound from adult inmates, according to Amie Downs, the communications director for Allegheny County.
Mistrett called these separate housing pods “gladiator units.”
“The kids are steeped in fear, they're looking at a very significant time, and they're not getting any services and support to show them there's another way,” Mistrett said. “They encourage the kids to fight each other.”
A statement from the jail administration said the juvenile housing pod is regularly reviewed and reinspected to meet guidelines and noted the jail’s juvenile educational staff consists of eight full-time state-certified teachers, two counselors and one behavior support specialist.
“Our students receive grade-level standard-based learning experiences,” the statement from the jail administration said. “In addition to their academics, students are provided with a therapeutic and trauma-informed setting. Every student has access to individual weekly and group therapy sessions through Duquesne University School of Psychology.”
Maria Guido, a forensic social worker who worked with juveniles in the Allegheny County court system, said Act 33 operates on the mentality of “adult crime, adult time.” But she said the kids who go through the system are typically from trauma-filled backgrounds that leave them damaged and unable to control their emotions.
“Adverse childhood experiences really impact the child's brain,” Guido said. “They're stuck in fight, flight or freeze. So you're talking about 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds who have seen absolute hell — we have no idea how they grew up.”
Guido said she knows some of the kids held at the ACJ committed “heinous” crimes, but they’re still children. And when a 15-year-old charged with murder throws himself to the ground in a child-like tantrum, an adult jail does not have the interventions and treatments needed to respond, she said.
“But at the end of the day, these are children, and there are interventions available to help them; they should be getting that; they do not need to be in a jail cell,” Guido said. “They do not need to be treated the way that adults are because we treat adults like [expletive] too.”
Melissa said her 17-year-old son went to the ACJ in January. She said he has a low IQ and several learning disabilities that give him a mind more similar to a 12-year-old than a 17-year-old. Still, she said the correctional officers treated him as an adult.
“They just don't treat them like children; they treat them like adults,” Melissa said. “The way they talk to them is really disturbing. I mean, my son told me the [correctional officers] come in and talk to you any type of way and do whatever they want.” PINJ gave Melissa partial anonymity out of her fear of reprisal.
Melissa said despite her son’s learning disabilities, he wasn’t given any accommodations in his classes like extended time on assignments or one-on-one instruction.
According to a Nov. 15 email from Geleynse, the jail contracts with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to provide educational services and make accommodations for students. He said the Allegheny Intermediate Unit employs five regular education teachers and three additional special education teachers who can include one-on-one support.
“Teachers modify and adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of each student,” Geleynse said in the email. “Staff follow, implement and update any Individual Education Plans. Students also have access to individual and group therapy.”
Each time there was an altercation in the juvenile pod, Melissa said, the jail would revoke her son’s contact visitation privileges. She said she had only one contact visit with him in his seven months at the ACJ.
“They're not giving them services; they're not giving them motivation; they’re not giving them support,” Melissa said. “They're not letting them know, ‘Hey, we're here to help you.’ So when you re-enter into society, you're not better than what you came in.”
Geleynse called contact visits “a privilege that is earned” and said individuals must be misconduct-free for at least 30 days to receive them.
Melissa said, unlike Luster’s son, her son did receive monthly interest of justice hearings, but she said they never lasted longer than 10 minutes each.
Connors also declined to comment on Melissa’s son’s interest of justice cases “given the inability to identify” the involved child.
Hallam, who visits the jail regularly, said the kids can hear adult inmates and smell smoke from their cigarettes through open vents. She said they walk past general population cells on the way to class on the first floor.
The statement from the jail administration noted the reauthorization requires that juveniles shall not have any “sight or sound contact” with adult inmates, which is to say, any physical, clear visual or verbal contact that is not brief and inadvertent.
Hallam said the adult inmates beg her to look into their cases, but the kids asked for a basketball hoop or headphones for their tablets. She said, “These are children being held in the jail and treated as adults.”
Luster said while her son was at the ACJ, he attended school five days a week, but he didn’t get the counseling or intervention he needed. She said he was scared of the correctional officers and unable to sleep.
She said, “This was a little boy feeling homesick.”
Speaking in reference to the correctional officers, Luster said, “You're grown adults. This is your job. If it was your kids, would you all want this to be happening to your kids down here?”
RELATED ESSAY FROM AN ONGOING SERIES: “Stripped: Unveiling the unseen trauma of strip searching juveniles in the Allegheny County Jail” by Tanisha Long.