Pa. Justices Won't Order Mass Juvenile Detainee Release

By Matthew Santoni
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Law360 (April 7, 2020, 8:33 PM EDT) -- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a request Tuesday to halt all new juvenile detentions and release most juvenile offenders from custody in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but ordered a county-by-county review to determine if smaller, local releases are needed.

The justices denied the petition from the Juvenile Law Center and the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project to use their "King's Bench" power to stop new juvenile detentions and order a wide release of juveniles in certain categories.

"Ordering, inter alia, that juveniles entering the juvenile system not be placed into detention and that juveniles in detention be reviewed for release, with certain presumptive categories of juveniles being immediately released, in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in facilities housing juveniles is denied," the order said.

Instead, county courts should examine whether their juvenile detention facilities follow the best practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and consider releasing or transferring detainees if the facilities are too crowded to comply.

"The potential outbreak of COVID-19 in facilities housing juveniles in detention poses an undeniable threat to the health of juvenile detainees, facility staff and their families, and the surrounding community," the opinion said. "Accordingly, action to mitigate the potential of a public health crisis is appropriate."

The order was similar to one the high court issued Friday, denying blanket releases from county jails and prisons but also ordering reviews and, if needed, releases and reductions in new detainees in order to lower the prisoner population so they can follow guidelines on social distancing.

"President judges should also consult with relevant county stakeholders to identify juveniles and/or classes of juveniles for potential release from placement to reduce the current and future populations of the institutions during this public health crisis," the Supreme Court said Tuesday. "Moreover, consistent with these considerations, judges are to undertake efforts to limit the introduction of new juveniles into the juvenile detention system during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Since Pennsylvania declared a state of emergency for the pandemic, family visits and direct contact with teachers in juvenile detention centers have been halted, according to the groups' petition. Some of the detainees included as plaintiffs in the petition said their daily routines had been disrupted, but they were still using common facilities such as bathrooms, day rooms and gyms that made the recommended social distancing and hygiene hard if not impossible to maintain.

Joanna Visser Adjoian of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project said she was disappointed in the court's order, since the petitioners had been hoping for statewide guidance on who can be released. A county-by-county evaluation could lead to some jurisdictions being slower to respond to the pandemic than others.

"We're concerned that this will only lead to 'justice by geography.' ... We've not seen consistency across the counties," she told Law360. "We hope the judiciary in the counties will take bold action, given the encouragement they've received from the state's highest court."

She said the petitioners for the juvenile detainees had worked with the ACLU, which led the petition related to the adult jails and prisons, but noted that there were distinctions between the juvenile and adult detainees.

"We emphasized in the petition and we'll say it again here: the relief we were requesting was about the health of youth in confinement, but it was really about the public health of all of us in our communities," Visser Adjoian said.

"The court's opinion was appropriate, and directed to individual assessment at the local level," said Alan R. Boynton Jr. of McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC, representing the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, one of the respondents in the petition.

Representatives for the Department of Corrections declined to comment. Representatives for the other respondents did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The petitioners are represented by Marsha Levick, Jessica Feierman and Karen U. Lindell of the Juvenile Law Center; Lauren Fine, Joanna Visser Adjoian and Emily Robb of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project; and Courtney Saleski, Nathan Heller, Jamie Kurtz and Summer Norwood of DLA Piper.

The respondents are represented by Alan R. Boynton Jr., Claudia N. Shank and Anne E. Zerbe of McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC; Michael Daley of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts; Jill Marie Graziano and Tracy S. Piatkowski; Theron R. Perez and Timothy A. Holmes of the Department of Corrections; Gregory G. Schwab of the Governor's Office of General Counsel; Kenneth J. Serafin and Matthew J. McLees of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services; and Josh Shapiro and Ronald Eisenberg of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.

The case is In Re: The Petition of C.Z. et al., case number 24 EM 2020, in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

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