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Nonpartisan Push to Close VA Juvenile Prisons

A new nonpartisan coalition says the time is right to reform Virginia's juvenile justice system. Credit: Richard Ross for the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A new nonpartisan coalition says the time is right to reform Virginia's juvenile justice system. Credit: Richard Ross for the Annie E. Casey Foundation
October 2, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. - The time is right to reform Virginia's juvenile justice system, according to a new nonpartisan coalition called RISE for Youth. The coalition wants to replace the big juvenile prisons with community-based corrections.

States around the country have been changing how they treat young offenders. They're relying less on incarceration and more on reforming the youths' behavior while they stay at home or live close by.

One problem with juvenile prisons, said Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan, is that they can turn young scofflaws into hardened criminals - such as a 14-year-old car thief who heard from inmates that he was in prison because he left witnesses.

"The difference now is, he basically shot each of his victims - because he learned he wasn't supposed to leave victims behind," Morgan said. "That young man ultimately was put to death."

Juvenile prisons often were built by lawmakers who wanted to be tough on crime. But Morgan said programs that head off bad behavior can sharply reduce arrests and recidivism - at a fraction of the cost of incarceration.

The RISE for Youth coalition is looking to Gov. Terry McAuliffe and lawmakers from both parties to increase funding for local programs. Some of these coach and support families with troubled children, while others run small residential facilities that maintain the youths' connections to their communities.

About two-thirds of the state's young offenders have mental-health issues, said Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Kate Duvall. She pointed to the case of one young man who was arrested for petty theft and, rather than getting treatment, ended up getting stuck in the system.

"He was ultimately sent to juvenile prison for violating probation by getting suspended from school for bringing a cell phone," she said. "Youth prisons, in fact, don't make our communities safer, and they're a waste of Commonwealth money."

Felony theft in Virginia starts at $200. The group favors raising that threshold. The coalition also wants misbehavior at school to be treated as a criminal issue less often.

Morgan said the next General Assembly could save the state money and keep neighborhoods safer by investing in programs that work. As Morgan put it, prevention is cheaper than corrections.

"Functional family therapy coaches kids and parents together," he said, "and in one study this program cut re-arrest rates in half."

More information on RISE for Youth is online at riseforyouth.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA