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Federal Juvenile-Justice Reforms Would Aid Virginia

PHOTO: States including Virginia would receive incentives for locking up fewer juveniles, under a newly updated Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act introduced in Congress. Photo credit: Richard Ross, courtesy of Annie E. Casey Foundation.
PHOTO: States including Virginia would receive incentives for locking up fewer juveniles, under a newly updated Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act introduced in Congress. Photo credit: Richard Ross, courtesy of Annie E. Casey Foundation.
December 18, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. - Congress is set to consider updating a decades-old law that guides states on the custody and care of juveniles in the criminal justice system. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was introduced earlier this month. One big change would provide incentives to states to lock up fewer children. Investigative journalist Nell Bernstein says incarcerating children is expensive and can cause harm that follows them the rest of their lives.

"The ones we incarcerate are twice as likely, when you control for everything under the sun including the delinquent act, to end up as adult prisoners," she says.

Bernstein advocates closing most juvenile-detention facilities, saying treating the underlying issues closer to kids' homes has been proven to be more effective.

"We have to unlock ourselves from the first-line response when a young person does something we don't want them to do to remove them from home and community, and place them in a locked institution," she says.

Decades ago, Bernstein says, if a young person acted up in school, they went to the principal's office. Now they go to a school police officer and it's a common entry point into the criminal system. She says the "acting out," "mouthing off," skipping school or shoplifting that often leads to kids being put behind bars is a developmental phase.

"There are not two kinds of kids: 'good' and 'bad.' It's a developmental phase. Those kids who commit those illegal acts but are not incarcerated, those kids grow up and grow out of it," she says.

The cost of jailing juveniles is pushing a number of states to move away from their incarceration. Virginia faces a multi-year deficit that could reach $2.5 billion. Supporters say the federal reform could help ease that.

The JJDPA is sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Nell Bernstein has written "Burning Down the House," which looks at abuses to young people in detention.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA