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Youth Lock-ups in Virginia Drop

PHOTO: The rate at which youth are locked-up in Virginia has declined by 42-percent since 1997. That mirrors a national trend.
PHOTO: The rate at which youth are locked-up in Virginia has declined by 42-percent since 1997. That mirrors a national trend.
February 28, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. - Fewer young people in the U.S. are going to jail, according to a new report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which found that the nation has hit a 35-year low in terms of the numbers of kids being confined. In Virginia, there has been a 42-percent drop in the rate of incarceration since 1997.

Amy Woolard, a senior policy attorney with Voices for Virginia's Children, said while the numbers are headed in the right direction, we still have a lot of work to do. Too often, kids who have mental health issues are locked up, as opposed to getting the proper services, she explained.

"One of the ways we can improve is to make sure that these kids are being identified when they have mental health needs or when they have special education needs, and make sure those resources are brought in before those needs exacerbate into the types of behaviors that lead kids into court," she said.

More than a quarter of the children who are confined in Virginia's juvenile correctional centers have a suicidal thought or destructive behavior history, Woolard said. Her group works with communities and families to make sure mental health services are provided to kids as early as possible - before hospitalization or incarceration.

According to the report, African American youth are nearly five times more likely to be confined than their white peers. In Virginia, black juveniles make up over 60 percent of the Juvenile Correctional Center population each year, Woolard said.

"That should be a real concern to everyone here in Virginia," she said. "That has implications that reach into how we are funding our school systems and how we are treating youth of color in the educational context, as well."

Laura Speer, associate director of policy and research at the Casey Foundation, said even though incarceration rates have declined, the U.S. still lags behind other countries in juvenile justice reforms.

"Compared to other countries that are similar to the United States, we still incarcerate our young people many times higher than other countries do," she said. "There's still a long way to go."

Speer said the research is clear: Incarcerating young people, especially those who do not pose a public safety risk, is not a smart thing to do - and it doesn't work. It is important for kids to get their lives back on track, she said, and detention time makes that almost impossible.

The report, "Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States," is available at www.aecf.org.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - VA