Juvenile suspect housing limited
Judge: State lacks facilities to hold accused minors
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Because Pennsylvania has a shortage of housing for juveniles accused of serious crimes, a 16-year-old accused in Blair County of conspiring to commit robbery and other charges will be returned to the Cambria County’s Prison where he is housed in a cell with two other juveniles.
President Judge Elizabeth Doyle said Wednesday in court that she wouldn’t object to Zavion Tavaris Little’s transfer to a secure facility for juveniles if housing becomes available.
The last check for that kind of housing, however, revealed no availability at 13 facilities inside Pennsylvania. They were either full or reported to be overcapacity and understaffed, juvenile probation officer Steffen Housum told Doyle.
Little’s grandmother, Cheryl Thompson, who works as a nurse at Monroe County Jail in Stroudsburg, expressed concern to Doyle about her grandson being housed in a prison for adults.
“It only takes a split second for an inmate to turn,” Thompson said.
Thompson, who was accompanied to court by Little’s mother and aunt, assured Doyle that Little is loved and called him a leader among children.
“No matter how dumb his action was … you need to see him as a 16-year-old boy who has promise,” the grandmother said.
Doyle acknowledged the grandmother’s concern as well as her own.
“The court has been frustrated many times by the lack of facilities in Pennsylvania for all juveniles,” the judge said.
Defense attorney Kristen Anastasi told Doyle that she has been able to meet with Little at the Cambria County Prison. She said the cell he shares with two other juveniles is close to an area where adults are admitted to the facility.
Under the Juvenile Justice Reform Act passed in December 2018, juveniles charged as adults are prohibited from having “sight or sound contact” with adult inmates, unless a judge rules otherwise.
In conducting an interest-of-justice hearing Wednesday to review Little’s housing, Doyle concluded that Cambria County facility is appropriate, while other options can be explored and considered, based on availability.
Doyle was also expected Wednesday to conduct an interest-of-justice hearing for Adam Herrera Levert, 17, who is being housed in an area for juveniles within the state prison at Camp Hill.
Because his transportation from that facility was delayed, Levert’s hearing was canceled Wednesday and rescheduled for this morning.
As a result, Levert may be housed overnight in an isolation cell at the Blair County Prison, Doyle said.
Little and Levert are the pair of Rochester, N.Y., teenagers who, on May 28, led police on a high-speed chase between Altoona and the Tipton on-ramp to I-99 where their vehicle crashed.
District Attorney Pete Weeks has accused both of conspiracy to commit robbery — a felony — based on evidence indicating that they stabbed a man in Rochester, N.Y., and stole his car, then ran out of gas in Ellicottville, N.Y., where they stole the car they drove into Pennsylvania and Blair County.
Anastasi, who objects to the conspiracy charge, told Doyle there’s no evidence of Little’s intention to commit a crime in Pennsylvania as the youth were passing through on their way to South Carolina.
Weeks disagreed by pointing out that the knife used in the New York stabbing was found in the vehicle the pair abandoned in New York. Inside the vehicle the youth crashed in Blair County, he said, police found another knife.
“The commonwealth contends there’s an ongoing conspiracy to commit robbery,” Weeks said. “The acquisition of a new knife fits that conspiracy.”
Doyle directed Anastasi to put her objections in a legal brief, to be filed by Aug. 5, and to provide a copy to Weeks who should file a response by Aug. 12.
Anastasi is also asking for Little’s charges to be transferred from adult court to juvenile court which would require a decertification hearing.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456