Silvonek, 14, is rare child in adult jail Girl charged in killing of mom, a Jim Thorpe native
ALLENTOWN For more than a month, 14-year-old Jamie Silvonek has been locked up at the Lehigh County Jail in Allentown, charged as an adult in her mother's killing.
Cheryl Silvonek, a Jim Thorpe native, was killed in March near her home in South Whitehall Township.
The eighth-grader is incarcerated with women, not girls her own age.
The younger inmates are about twice her age, the older ones are more like her grandmother's. Her presence in the jail bucks a national trend to house children in juvenile facilities when they are charged as adults.
Allentown attorney John Waldron has petitioned the court to move Silvonek, who is scheduled for trial this year, to a juvenile facility. Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin wants her to stay put.
Many counties, including Northampton and Bucks, house teens charged as adults in secure juvenile detention centers instead of adult jail. They do that partly because it makes it easier to comply with a federal law that requires jail staff to keep constant watch over teens behind bars, and to segregate them from older inmates.
In an adult setting, it's hard to abide by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, said William Plantier, Bucks County's director of corrections, because it requires "sight and sound separation," meaning adult inmates should neither see nor hear juvenile prisoners.
"What you're actually talking about is a prison inside a prison," Plantier said. "You'd have to staff it and for the most part, it would be empty."
To comply with the law and keep Silvonek safe, Lehigh County Jail officials assigned her to a cell where she sleeps alone. She is only permitted to interact with one other inmate, a 17-year-old girl housed in the same cellblock. Her presence at the jail isn't causing a disruption, said Edward Sweeney, corrections director.
Last year, 14 teens charged as adults were in Lehigh County Jail, up from 11 in 2013. In 2012, the jail housed 16 juveniles.
By contrast, Carbon County had only one juvenile in its jail last year, Warden Timothy Fritz said. As in Lehigh County, Carbon kept the child in the adult jail.
County jails have grappled with the housing issues since 1996, when an amendment to the Juvenile Act allowed youths under 18 to automatically be tried as adults for certain crimes. Before that, only children accused of murder could be charged as adults and sent to adult prison.
Now, juveniles can be tried as adults if they are 15 years or older at the time of their alleged crime and accused of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated assault, robbery, carjacking, aggravated indecent assault or kidnapping. Even younger children can be tried as adults for homicide.
After almost a decade of study and debate, the U.S. Justice Department in 2012 implemented rules that prisons must follow to comply with the 2003 rape prevention law. States whose prisons are not compliant can lose money about 5 percent of prison-related federal funds.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole said about 10 percent of the estimated 100,000 children in custody nationwide reported being sexually victimized in 2013, he said.
The law states jails "must avoid" putting children in solitary confinement to comply with the rules.
There's a good reason for that, said Carmen Daugherty, policy director at the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization that lobbies against incarcerating youths in adult jails.
At the time the law was implemented, Campaign for Youth Justice found that suicide rates among teens held in solitary at adult facilities were 36 times greater than among youths held in juvenile facilities, Daugherty said.
Most states no longer allow children as young as 14 to be housed with adults, Daugherty said.
"Pennsylvania is really an outlier in keeping this young woman in an adult facility," she said of Silvonek.
Younger teens are also a headache for prison staff because they require more supervision, she said. Adult correctional facilities that accept juveniles report a high rate of incidents involving inmates under 18.
"There's the kind of smarting off and not following the rules that you'd expect from teenagers," Daugherty said. "So they get in more fights with staff and other inmates."
Unlike surrounding counties, Lehigh County does not have its own juvenile detention facility. The 48-bed facility in South Whitehall Township which had an average of 14 children in 2013 closed last year in a move that officials projected would save the county $750,000 a year.
Juveniles detained in Lehigh County and not charged as adults are sent to secure detention facilities in Berks and Lancaster counties.
In Northampton County, juveniles charged as adults stay in protective custody at the jail and are segregated from adults until they meet with their attorneys. Once that happens, they are sent to an out-of-county facility that only houses juvenile offenders, said Joseph Kospiah, deputy warden of Northampton County Prison.
Counselors at the county Juvenile Justice Center in Easton are trained to talk to children about such things as sexual assault, said J. Jermaine Greene, Northampton's associate court administrator and former director of juvenile justice. They also recognize triggers such as holidays and birthdays, when children might become more emotional or even try to harm themselves.
If Silvonek were being held in such a facility, she would have companions and classmates. Children in Northampton's juvenile center spend five hours a day in classrooms and have gym class every other day.
When she was first arrested, Silvonek was charged as a juvenile with helping her soldier boyfriend, Caleb Barnes, 21, clean up after her mother was stabbed to death March 15. Cheryl Silvonek's body was found in a shallow grave in South Whitehall hours after she had driven the young couple to a concert and diner.
Police say Cheryl Silvonek, 54, of Upper Macungie Township, was killed because she tried to end her daughter's relationship with Barnes.
When she was charged as a juvenile, Jamie Silvonek was incarcerated at Abraxas Academy, a privately owned secure juvenile detention center in Morgantown, Berks County. Two weeks later, prosecutors charged her as an adult after recovering text messages that allegedly show that Silvonek and Barnes had plotted to kill both of her parents.
Waldron then filed a petition to keep her at Abraxas. The request was denied without a court hearing because prosecutors opposed the move. By law, the district attorney must agree to allow a teen charged as an adult to stay in a juvenile lockup while awaiting trial.
The next step in Silvonek's case is a decertification hearing in which Waldron will ask a judge to return Silvonek's case to juvenile court. The judge must consider the services available to Silvonek in the adult and juvenile correctional systems and decide if she's amenable to treatment.
David Silvonek wants his daughter moved to a juvenile detention center. He said he's worried she's not receiving the mental health treatment he thinks she needs.
"She needs counseling. She witnessed the murder of my wife. It's tragic," he said in an April interview.
She has access to mental health care in Lehigh County Jail, Sweeney said. The facility has a psychologist and a psychiatrist on staff, he said, and Silvonek can ask for help any time. She also gets one-on-one academic instruction.
If Silvonek is found guilty in juvenile court and incarcerated, she would serve her time in a juvenile facility and would not be held beyond her 21st birthday.
If convicted as an adult, she could serve decades in state prison.
But until she turned 18, she would serve her sentence in a special section of the state prison in Muncy, Lycoming County.
She would live on a floor that has no adult inmates.