Allegheny County juvenile system gets high marks

Review, in wake of Luzerne case, notes lack of funds

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Using the Luzerne County "Kids for Cash" scandal as a backdrop, officials in Allegheny County's juvenile court system set out to review their own county's state of affairs.

On Monday, they released the first countywide report of its kind in Pennsylvania. It was largely complimentary of the system, although it also pointed out a number of problems, many of which are caused by funding shortfalls.

The Allegheny County Commission was chaired by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Dwayne Woodruff, who sat on the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice established in 2009 in response to what happened in Luzerne County.

"It was tragic," he said of the Luzerne County situation.

Two judges there went to federal prison for taking millions of dollars in kickbacks from two for-profit youth detention centers. In exchange, the judges sentenced juveniles appearing before them to serve sentences in those facilities.

Judge Woodruff told the story of a girl who had been a straight-A student and Girl Scout with not a single detention -- let alone an arrest -- who was held in Luzerne County for more than eight months for flipping her middle finger at a police officer.

Even though her court saga has ended, the girl has been unable to return to school.

"She was such a promising young lady," Judge Woodruff said. "The heart, that drive she had, is no longer there.

"We're still trying to figure out how do we help those people get back on track."

The Allegheny County report praised the work of juvenile court prosecutors from the district attorney's office, noting that five assistant district attorneys as well as a deputy district attorney work in the unit full time.

It criticized a lack of funding for the Allegheny County public defender's office, which recently lost $850,000 per year from the state.

The report noted that to reach the recommended ratio of cases per attorney, the public defender's office would need to add eight lawyers to the division. In 2011, the report said, the public defender's office represented children in more than 12,000 matters, with just 11 attorneys, three support staff members and one attorney supervisor.

The report included a number of recommendations to increase staffing as well as to increase training for attorneys.

"Some of the recommendations in this report will require long-range planning and sustained attention," Judge Woodruff wrote in the report. "Others have engendered swift, decisive action."

Although the office had a budget of $7.6 million this fiscal year, it is projected to spend $8.2 million. County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is asking for county council to approve a $9 million budget for next year.

Among those steps that have already been taken is the approval by all Allegheny County judges to undergo 12 hours a year of continuing legal education.

"To my knowledge, this kind of commitment has not been adopted anywhere else in Pennsylvania," President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel said.

Another change that went into effect in May 2011 was the removal of handcuffs and shackles from juvenile offenders when they appear in court.

One of the recommendations still being implemented is the requirement that a judge place on the record during a proceeding the reasons the disposition is being given. By doing that, Judge Woodruff said, the juveniles, victims and family members better understand what is happening and why.

"It is our hope we lead by example," Judge Woodruff said. "As a court, we realize we should be held accountable, and we hope that you will do that.

"The idea is for the court to be more transparent than it has been."

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Paula Reed Ward: or 412-263-2620.


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