City opens new youth detention center

Ribbon cutting for the new Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center was held Thursday, Dec 20. Pictured is Mayor Michael Nutter, along with State Sen. Vincent Hughes, Chief of Staff Everett Gillison, and other civic and juvenile service leaders. – ABDUL R. SULAYMAN/TRIBUNE CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

No one wants to see their child adjudicated to spend time in a juvenile facility. Unfortunately, many families in Philadelphia have children who will commit a crime, will stand before a Family Court judge, and find themselves in detention.

For years, the facility for housing and educating these children was called the Youth Study Center, and its central location was at 20th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway – that is until a new state of the art building was completed this year. The new Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center (PJJSC) officially opened its doors Thursday amid fanfare, protests and mutual congratulations from those who saw the project through. Mayor Michael Nutter was joined by other city officials for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the secure, short-term residential detention facility for youth ages 13 to 20. The Center offers social and educational programs which aim to steer children accused or found guilty of crimes away from further illegal behavior.

“The new Juvenile Justice Services Center represents years of planning and collaboration,” said Nutter. “The building reflects Philadelphia’s commitment to addressing the needs of our citizens: the security needs of our residents and the social-service needs of at-risk youth as they develop into productive, contributing citizens.”

The new facility is at the corner of 48th Street and Haverford Avenue, and is easily accessible by public transportation or car. The $110 million, city-funded Center has more than 160,000 square feet and beds for more than 150 residents.

“The goal of the Center is to help young people who are involved in the juvenile justice system make better decisions and improve the trajectory of their lives,” said DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose.  “This new facility embodies our belief that given the right support, children have an immense capacity for change.” 

The Center is not just a detention facility for keeping young people who have made bad decisions off the streets. It features 10 classrooms, a gymnasium, a health clinic, outdoor recreation spaces and a garden. Visitation space includes a play area where volunteers can baby-sit young children, and rooms where youth can meet with their families, lawyers, social service providers and probation officers.  Family Court courtrooms, Judges’ chambers and conference rooms are also on site.

“Philadelphia is working hard to improve outcomes for youth involved with the justice system and the courts,” said Judge Kevin Dougherty. “The design of this new facility allows for enhanced programming to better meet the needs of young people we are serving to maximize opportunities for their transformation.”

But not everyone is pleased with the new state-of-the-art facility, or the money that was spent to construct it. As Nutter and city officials remarked how the staff of the facility are committed to helping young people turn away from criminal behavior, protestors from the surrounding community wanted to know why a detention center for young people was built at a time when the Philadelphia School District found it necessary to close more than thirty schools.

“They’re calling it an education center to make it sound good, but they’re basically locking up children,” said Diane Eizer, one of the protestors. “The number of children being locked up is so absurd that even trying to make the argument that some kids need to be locked up is ridiculous. They’re criminalizing behavior that kids in wealthier communities get a slap on the wrist for - and for which kids in this community go to jail - things like minor drug possession.”

“The point is these are children, babies, who we are supposed to be teaching how to not mess up,” said Sonia Williams, another protestor. “Why treat them as if they have one chance to get it right, and if not, it’s the end? Children need time to learn and grow and the city is not giving them that. Is it cheaper to help these children on the front end, to have preventive measures like more education? Yes, in the long term but the people who are in charge of these facilities don’t care about that; they don’t care if the city is in ruins.”

Judge Dougherty said he agreed with the protestors, but people in law enforcement also must consider public safety.

“Yes, we do need more funding for education, but we also need to keep the communities safe and help children who have been engaged in criminal acts turn their lives around. Our successes outweigh our failures - and those are stories that don’t get told often enough,” he said.

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