, Northampton County Council members Kevin Lott and Tara Zrinski double-teamed Court Administrator Jermaine Greene when he requested upgrades for six supervisor positions at the Juvenile Justice Center (JJC). He wanted them paid at the same level as lieutenants at the jail. An angry Lott called for an operational and even a sustainability study of the facility. Zrinski noted these supervisory positions are
She also questioned whether there was money for these upgrades, even though Greene had previously said there was.
Greene, who has endured this passive aggressive behavior from Zrinski and Lott for well over a year, finally called them out and suggested their persistent digs are both personal and "politically motivated."
Last week, at a Council Committee meeting that both actually attended, they got a detailed explanation of a major crisis at the Juvenile Justice Center caused by a serious staffing shortage of 39-43 youth care workers out of 57 positions. If this continues, it means that some juvenile offenders who need to be in detention are going to be out on the street, committing more crimes and endangering our community. It also means that juvenile offenders who are detained will be sent hours away from their families. While many of you might say that's just too damn bad, you'll sing a different tune when you learn it costs $700 a day to detain a juvenile at an outside facility. That money comes out of your pocket.
Greene was joined by Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Matthew Garvey, JCC Director JaMarr Billman and Court Fiscal Administrator Badaoui Boulos. The bleak picture they painted for Council
was one that cries out for immediate attention. .
Matthew Garvey: The big picture
Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Matthew Garvey said that, in 2005, there were 29 detention centers across the state. Now there are just 17, with 533 beds available. Only 366 are operational because of insufficient staff. The situation is so critical that, last year, the Juvenile Court Judges' Comm'n asked then Governor Tom Wolf
to start paying more money to youth care workers. They noted 10 instances of juveniles under "house arrest" who went on to commit new crimes or disappear before their hearing.
Governor Wolf did nothing. Neither has Governor Josh Shapiro, at least not yet. His proposed budget contains no increases for youth care workers at state facilities.
This staffing shortage costs counties money. Garvey spoke of a situation in Dauphin County in which juveniles charged with adult crimes are being housed at a private facility at a cost of $700 a day. Greene added that, in some counties, juveniles are being housed at hotels guarded by deputy sheriffs. This is a big drain on limited county resources. There are probation officers now who spend nearly half their working day trying to locate a bed. This takes them away from other, more productive, duties.
In addition to the financial drain on counties, Garvey indicated that shipping juveniles far from home often makes treatment impossible. A CBS21 (Harrisburg) news report
tells the story of Santos Robles, a Lebanon County juvenile offender who was shipped off to Philly and then Pittsburgh. He lost all ties to his family. Juveniles in 76% of Pennsylvania's counties are 1-2 hours away from the nearest available bed. That makes family visits very difficult, especially for those with limited incomes. That trip is 3-4 hours for juveniles in 22% of Pa. counties. "You need to have families engaged in treatment and that is why is is a poor idea to send them across the state for treatment," said Garvey
JaMarr Billman: NorCo's JJC
The JJC is an 84-bed facility budgeted for 57 youth care workers. Right now, only 14 youth care workers are employed, with no new hires in the pipeline despite efforts from Human Resources to get the word out. Since Nov 2022, 8 JJC employees have left and 8 have been hired. Of those who left, they went to other jobs dealing with children and youth, security and police. Three part-time employees have been hired and two are in the hiring process. "It helps us fill that need at night, " said Billman.
State regulations require one youth care worker for every 6 residents in detention. There are three detention units that can house 12 residents each.
One staffer is required for every 8 residents in a treatment or specialized program. There are 12 beds per unit in those programs.
The facility passed its last inspection in February, with zero complaints about staff from juveniles. He indicated they "really like the food," too. He said his staff has excelled at de-escalation, making juveniles feel safe and secure/ If they feel that way, he said they are more likely to open up.
A critical staffing shortage has created a statewide crisis, but Zrinski wanted to know what the JCC does about trans juveniles.
Detention facilities are co-ed. There are treatment programs for males and females and Billman indicated PREA
guidelines are followed for trans juveniles.
Badaoui Boulos: The financial picture at JCC
Boulos told Council that the County has set aside $9.2 million for the JJC this year. Of that sum, $5.5 million is intended for staff salaries and benefits. Unfortunately, a whopping $1.35 million is for home services and placement in outside facilities.
He indicated 13 juveniles are in detention, including two from out of county. In Specialized Treatment, there are 8 residents, including 1 from out of county. The male and female treatment programs have no residents because there is insufficient staff. In fact, supervisors are doing the work of youth care workers.
Revenue from the JCC is projected this year at $5.7 million. There are contracts for bed space with 16 different counties inside the state. The budget optimistically predicts $1.6 million from other counties sending juveniles.
Bolous was a bit more realistic. "If things stay the way they are, we're probably only going to bring in $600,000 in revenue," he cautioned.
He indicated that the JJC's best year was 2019, when there was more staff. "We've never been fully staffed, but it's never been anything like this," he said of the vacancies.
The county currently receives $290 a day to house a juvenile from another county. That will increase to $315 a day on July 1.
Greene: The Fix is In
Court Administrator Jermaine Greene minced no words with County Council. "If we don't have this center, it's going to be catastrophic to this county on many different levels," he said. "I've been talking about this for 14 months and we're still here paying people $16.40 an hour to go in our 24/7 facility when they can go to WaWa and make $15 an hour. What are we doing? We have an obligation here, all of us. ... We're gonna' break up these families. ... If you don't help us, you should be ashamed of yourselves. The courts are being treated differently here, and I don't like it because I think the fix is in on this union thing because we're still waiting for an arbitrator there. ... That's unacceptable to me"
Greene is understandably exasperated, but the crisis at JJC makes everyone look bad, from the County Exec to Council to the courts to the union. There is no upside for anyone in permitting this crisis to linger.
The reality here is that the union was offered exactly what the courts requested, and that was to pay youth care workers the same money that is paid to corrections officers. There has been no vote on this issue. Union negotiators have instead declared an impasse because more senior members will see no benefit until the final year of a three-year contract.
According to Executive Lamont McClure, the first arbitrator chosen retired. The bargaining unit requested another list, and the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has so far failed to supply a list.
Greene also wants a legal opinion from the County Council Solicitor on the feasibility of using American Rescue Plan Act money to pay bonuses to youth care workers since that was done at Gracedale.
I have several problems with this request. First, Spadoni is the Solicitor to County Council, not the courts. Second, there is very little American Rescue Plan Act money left. Third, no legal opinion is being sought.
Council member John Goffredo came up with a possible solution. He suggested that Council simply approve new wage classifications for youth care workers at higher salaries and be done with it. While this is a worthy idea that deserves consideration, my chief concern is that the union or county might consider it an unfair labor practice. It probably would be a good idea to run this by the bargaining unit and county administration.
Another solution follows the admonition my father often had for his clients. "Sue the bastards!" In this case, the bastard is not McClure, Council or even the union. It is the PLRB, whose delay in getting an arbitration list is borderline criminal. The mere threat of a mandamus action, coming from the courts, should awaken this sleepy state agency.