Criminal justice groups want Philly’s juvenile detention center to release children

More than 100 children are being held in a Philadelphia juvenile detention center while the COVID-19 pandemic spreads through the city.

Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center (City of Philadelphia)

Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center (City of Philadelphia)

Criminal justice advocates are calling for the early release of more than 100 children stuck in Philadelphia’s primary juvenile detention center during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communications obtained by WHYY indicated that 150 children were being held in the city-run Juvenile Justice Services Center on Monday. Marsha Levick, co-founder and Chief Legal Officer for advocacy group Juvenile Law Center called for the release of many of those children.

“We need to make sure we can get the kids out who don’t need to be there,” she said. “For the kids that have to remain there, and hopefully that’s a small number, we need to make sure they have soap and sanitizer and that we’re educating them about the need for social distancing.”

While some children were being held at the juvenile service center as part of their detention sentence, others were at the center for other reasons — including pending placement to foster homes.

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Criminal justice advocates, prison physicians and others have raised concerns that detention facilities could be a dangerous hotbed for the coronavirus, due to close quarters and limited medical supplies. Locally, the court system has largely shut down and arrests have been curtailed in an effort to prevent detainees from contributing to the spread of the contagion.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said that detainees were currently being reviewed for early release, an effort that had reduced the JJSC population to 127 kids by Thursday afternoon. The city has“no intent on a mass release at this time,” he said.

In light of growing health concerns, Abernathy said “video visitation” had been substituted for in-person visitation.

Early release can require agreements between multiple parties –– the DA, judges, the state Department of Corrections and others.

First Judicial District spokesperson Marty O’Rourke said the courts had so far not received a request for a mass release but would take early release requests under advisement.

“The courts will consider any type of reasonable request where the DA, the defenders association and parole and probation agree on release,” he said. 

For his part, District Attorney Larry Krasner also said his office would be conditionally supportive of some early release measures.

“The DAO is moving quickly to expedite conditional release or alternative placement of detained people who do not pose a public safety threat,” spokesperson Jane Roh said.

Levick’s group and others separately cosigned a letter to Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf demanding the halt of new admissions to juvenile detention programs and “the removal of youth from juvenile detention and correctional facilities” across the state.

“…We urge you to publicly share your emergency plan for addressing the virus in the juvenile justice system and in any jail or prison that incarcerates youth,” the letter reads.

Levick said efforts to suspend visitation were not enough — and could even have deleterious mental health consequences for some children in state custody.

“This is the time to throw out the rule book,” she said. “Anyone who can be released, should be released.”

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