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Consensus Building to Reform WV Juvenile Justice System

PHOTO: A court order has forced West Virginia to remove all young offenders from the Salem complex. It was the state's only high-security juvenile facility. Observers say it has prompted new interest in reforms for the juvenile justice system.
PHOTO: A court order has forced West Virginia to remove all young offenders from the Salem complex. It was the state's only high-security juvenile facility. Observers say it has prompted new interest in reforms for the juvenile justice system.
August 28, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia is moving toward comprehensive juvenile justice reform that lawmakers and citizen groups say is badly needed.

A judge this summer ordered the state to take young offenders out of West Virginia's only high-security juvenile facility because of serious problems there. Since then, momentum has been building around the idea of intensive monitoring and treatment at home for some young offenders instead of locking them up.

Paul Sheridan, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said other states have made that change because they've found it works better.

"There's a very broad consensus that we incarcerate at way too high a rate, that we need to be moving toward community programs," he said. "That really is the best way to get the best outcomes. But the questions are, how best to move in that direction?"

The ACLU says West Virginia's youth incarceration rate has risen sharply in the past decade - even as it has fallen significantly in almost every other state.

Mishi Faruqee, an ACLU juvenile justice policy strategist, cited one community treatment program in Florida that reduced the numbers of youth who reoffend by one-third - and added that community-based programs are much less expensive.

"With that amount of money to send one young person to a residential facility, you can be serving five to seven young people in the community," she said. "And then, you also have the long-term cost benefit, because these programs are more effective."

Supporters of the current system say bad behavior, even by kids, has to be punished. Faruqee said many of the community treatment options actually strengthen family discipline and give parents and judges better tools for getting troubled kids to shape up.

"A lot of young people are being sent to residential treatment facilities, not because they pose a public safety threat but because they keep sort of breaking the rules," she said. "It's not an effective way to address youth misbehavior."

The West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition will hold a policy symposium Sept. 25-26 in Charleston that will focus in part on juvenile justice issues.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV