Editors’ Note: Excerpted from the Daily Press, December 22, 2019. One crucial step to criminal justice reform is a review of how the state treats youthful offenders.
By Dave Ress
Virginia imprisoned fewer young offenders over the past year, and more of those who were held served their time closer to home, according to the latest report on the state’s sweeping efforts at juvenile justice reform.
And when kids get into trouble, juvenile probation officers and courts are finding more alternatives for less serious offenders than detention or imprisonment — or even going to court at all.
The percentage of young people re-arrested after going through the juvenile justice system is down to 21% from 25% five years ago.
At the same time, the percentage of young people re-arrested after going through the juvenile justice system is down to 21% from 25% five years ago.
For those behind bars trapped by opioid addictions, meanwhile, the state Department of Juvenile Justice has launched a new medical treatment program to help them through detoxification and to start them on the path to recovery.
“It’s about the right youth getting the right treatment at the right time,” said department Director Valerie Boykin.
The department’s latest report on its transformation plans shows the number of young people imprisoned at the state’s juvenile correctional center in Bon Air, outside Richmond, has dropped 62% over the five years since its launch, including an 8% decline in fiscal year 2019.
The number of young people in state custody but held closer to home in local detention centers or other placements is up more than fourfold, and is approaching the number at Bon Air. The department now sends all female offenders to community placements instead of Bon Air.
The state wants to replace Bon Air with two smaller facilities closer to where the majority of youth live, but local opposition and advocates arguing that the state needed to operate smaller facilities closer to offenders’ homes this year derailed a plan to open one in Isle of Wight County.
“In the past, we had too many what I’d call lightweights, low-risk youth, going into the centers,” Boykin said. “Back in our day, they used to put truants into detention … keeping them out of school, locking them up with youth charged with robbery. That’s not a good thing.”
Incarceration has changed, too — even as the smaller numbers held are more difficult to manage.
New programs introduced at Bon Air over the past three years, which the Daily Press reported on in January, have cut the number of aggressive incidents there by 65%, while enrollment in post-secondary college and technical certification programs increased by 78%.
The belief that too many kids were ending up incarcerated, often for nonviolent offenses … prompted the General Assembly to approve the transformation plan, which called for shutting down several correctional centers and using the savings to boost community programs.
The belief that too many kids were ending up incarcerated, often for nonviolent offenses — including some that are not considered crimes if committed by adults — prompted the General Assembly to approve the transformation plan, which called for shutting down several correctional centers and using the savings to boost community programs.
Overall, the number of children in state custody is down from 550 five years to about 350 now. The state expects it to stay close to that level. The number doesn’t include youth held in local detention because they’re awaiting hearings or were ordered by a judge to serve very short terms.
Last year saw new guidelines that increased the percentage of youth diverted from the once-usual path of arrest and court, on the theory that kids and parents with the right attitude might do better with a more informal approach to sanction and rehabilitation. The percentage diverted rose from 15.5% in fiscal 2018 to 19% in 2019 after just a few months of operation.
Next year, the department will roll out a new process for making recommendations to juvenile court judges about disposition of cases when a young person is guilty of more serious offenses.
The process, tested in a pilot in Newport News and four other communities, looks at 10 separate factors that indicate the risk of re-offending, as well as the severity of the crime itself. Unlike past assessment processes, for which supervised probation or incarceration were the standard options, the new procedure points to a range of options, from reporting to a court about a community service sentence or participating in programs such as substance abuse treatment, to supervised probation or incarceration.