An ongoing shortage of available detention beds to house local juvenile offenders across Pennsylvania has prompted the county to take corrective action.

On Thursday, county commissioners unanimously approved entering into a Regional Secure Detention Agreement between Morgantown-based Abraxas Academy and six nearby counties to ensure local juvenile offenders are kept off the streets. As part of the agreement, Lebanon County will purchase two beds at a cost of $425.61 per bed per day for the rest of fiscal year 2022-23.

In a letter to the county commissioners, Audrey Fortna, director of Lebanon County Probation Services, noted the problems her department has faced over the past few years when staff is unable to secure a detention bed for local offenders. The letter was co-signed by President Judge John C. Tylwalk, Juvenile Court Judge Charles T. Jones Jr., and Susan Christner, deputy director of Lebanon County Probation Services.

Over the past eight months, Fortna said 22 youths were referred for detention and the county was only able to secure space for seven of them, which meant the other 15 offenders were allowed to remain in the community.

“When you look at the charges associated with those individuals, they are very serious charges,” said Fortna. “We’ve had rapes, aggravated assault, vehicle thefts that included high-speed chases with police, and we’ve had firearm thefts.”

Fortna cited a lack of bed space, which has been exacerbated recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic and personnel shortages. The closing of a detention center in Allegheny County last September has also had a ripple effect for available space at other juvenile facilities across Pennsylvania. 

“The (bed) shortage is being described by many criminal justice professionals as reaching crisis status,” Fortna told the commissioners at their bi-weekly meeting. “Abraxas Academy was identified by the regional participants as a viable option to address this need. Based on location, their current building would decrease the cost because we would not have to start from scratch since they have a facility that’s already to start once they have the staff to run it. And their location is good for our region.”

The total cost for the balance of fiscal year 2022-23 is $310,695.30, with the county’s participation slated to begin on July 1, according to Fortna. When the two beds are occupied, the cost of the beds will be covered by the county’s needs-based budget, which already has funds earmarked for detention services.

“It’s when the beds are not occupied that it becomes the county’s cost,” added Fortna. “Since this was not on the radar when I worked on the 2022 budget, July through December are not currently budgeted for. But it is something that I plan to budget on in the future, with your support.”

Fortna noted that she doesn’t anticipate this new cost to put the departmental budget into the red.  

“When I am looking at our department budget, we have a lot of personnel vacancies, so I don’t believe this will put us over budget by the end of the year,” said Fortna.

Fortna explained that if one or both beds designated for a local offender were to be unoccupied, that space would be allocated to another county for one of its detainees, adding that the other county would then assume the cost associated with the utilization of that space.

“The regional participants are going – we don’t have a date yet but we are looking to schedule a future meeting – to work on a memorandum of understanding between the counties that would outline what that process will look like in case we do some of the bed sharing,” said Fortna.

The other six counties, all of whom have reportedly approved entrance into the regional agreement, are Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lehigh, and York. 

When asked if the county might have to pay for empty beds, county administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said he doesn’t believe that will be the case. 

“It looks to me like the needs are there to cover it out of the needs-based budget,” he said during a discussion of the initiative. “Are we really going to need to cover any days of empty beds? Maybe by logistics we would if another county didn’t pick it up or whatever. But is there really going to be a gap here to the general fund?”

Based on data gleaned over the past five years, that would not have happened, replied Fortna.

“Our need for detention has exceeded 365 days per year for two beds,” added Fortna. “It’s very difficult to say and project that every single bed date will be filled by a Lebanon County kid, but I can tell you the need across the region still outpaces the number of beds that are available, so there are still other counties who are hungry for those beds.”

The Lebanon County Chiefs Association submitted to the county commissioners a letter of support for participation in the regional initiative.

In a separate action item that also concerned public safety, the commissioners gave approval to the county’s district attorney’s office to apply for a grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for an armed vehicle for its Emergency Services Unit at a cost of $248,198.  

The vehicle would be used by ESU during “large-scale and violent incidents” and purchased through Massachusetts-based Lenco Armored Vehicles, according to Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess-Graf.  

“The reason for this vehicle is multi-faceted,” said Hess-Graf. “The vehicle we currently have doesn’t compare to the capabilities that the new vehicle – that the new equipment – has to offer. It will ensure the safety of the men and women who serve and volunteer on this team for law enforcement.

“And it also ensures safety. If we go to a scene, we have a vehicle that is capable of safely extracting hostages and civilians from a violent and immediately pressing scenario. From a need base, it is a wonderful addition to the team and it is also a wonderful addition to protect the members of this community.”

Yet another item that helps promote overall public safety was announced with the hiring of 13 officers at the Lebanon County Correctional Facility, which has been short staffed recently due to COVID-19 issues.

Read More: LCCF union rep raises concerns about critical correctional officer shortage

Read More: Commissioners approve collective bargaining agreement with LCCF union

That action item was accepted with praise and gladness from the commissioners during personnel transactions.

In other county business, the commissioners:

  • Approved $252,360 in American Rescue Plan Act funding for the completion of the remaining half of the ADA-compliant timber boardwalk for the Clarence Schock Memorial Park at Governor Dick in Mount Gretna. The 315-foot-long boardwalk will have overlooks that rise 16 feet in the air. Construction will cost $228,000 with the balance of the funding going to pay engineering fees.
  • Announced their support for a PennVest application for the Myerstown-based Amos S. Esh farm for the implementation of Best Management Practices for nutrient management. 
  • Received a first quarter pension update from Stifel, the company that manages the county’s pension plan.
  • Accepted the treasurer’s report and approved the minutes of its May 5 meeting.
  • Approved two requests for real estate tax exemptions for two disabled veterans.
  • Added Alicia Arnold of Lebanon to the Lebanon County Women’s Commission.
  • Issued a proclamation designating this week as 2022 National Police Week.
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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; and Lancaster...