What’s causing all the gun battles in our area?

PITTSBURGH — It was a sunny afternoon last October and a funeral was taking place in Brighton Heights. A video stream from inside the church shows people ducking for cover as shots pop and once again -- another safe place was gone.

Accused of pulling the triggers are two teenage boys, Shawn Davis and Hezekiah Nixon. But records reveal, as young as they are, this was hardly the first crime they had been accused of.

Take Shawn Davis for instance. A jury convicted him of trying to shoot a store clerk. Fortunately, the gun jammed, but while he was out on bond for that crime, shots were fired inside the Ross Park Mall. Davis was accused of firing a gun inside the mall. A judge dropped the charges, citing an identification issue, despite Davis testing positive for gunshot residue on his hands. Davis spent seven months in jail for the incident with the store clerk and then was supposed to be at home with an ankle monitor on that bright day in October.

Previous coverage: Target 11: Allegheny County Courts responds to criticism over electronic monitoring

As for Nixon, he had previously been charged for firing a gun into a crowd of people. His punishment? As an underage teen, his records are closed, but sources say for the incident, a judge “sentenced” him to an after-school program, making him available to join his friend outside that funeral in Brighton Heights.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala says when it comes to teen crime here, what happened is all part of a frustrating and frightening pattern.

“The kid that shot at the funeral, hurt people at the funeral, he just came in and came out,” Zappala tells Channel 11. “Somebody released him. Sometimes they go in and go back out 24 hours later.”

In short, Zappala said the police take dangerous kids off the streets and the judges let them right back out because they often have nowhere to put them -- until they do something really horrible. So, what’s going on? It’s called a case of “noble intentions.”

After one too many scandals, the state of Pennsylvania decided to clean up the juvenile justice system. Part of that was cutting funding, resulting in the closing of more than a dozen detention centers across the state. By 2021, that created a 79% reduction in secure detention for teens. In Allegheny County, that number was an almost 90% reduction in detention beds. The closure of the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center eliminated beds, forcing authorities to even send some of them out of state to Steubenville, Ohio.

Jefferson County’s Sheriff Fred Abdalla Jr. used to run the Jefferson County Juvenile Detention Center.

“It doesn’t matter where a child is from,” Abdalla tells Channel 11. “Anything we can do to help a child regardless of where they’re from is a good thing.”

If a bed is available in Jefferson County, Ohio, a teen from Allegheny County could be sent there and they don’t see a revolving door of a violent juvenile being released.

“The juvenile judge considers the public and public safety and it’s held in high regard,” Abdalla added. “The judge certainly isn’t going to put a juvenile back in a situation where he feels it will be unsafe for the juvenile and he won’t release juveniles he feels are a threat to go out and do something to harm the public.”

It’s important to note, Jefferson County’s population is about 18% of Allegheny County’s, so there are far fewer juveniles committing crimes. We spoke with Robert Tomassini, who is the executive director of the Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission. He tells Channel 11 that the shortage of detention centers for teens is “a public safety concern” and that with not enough beds, it forces judges to risk releasing an already violent juvenile so they can hold an even more dangerous one.

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