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Poll Supports Juvenile Justice Reform

A new poll suggests strong support for juvenile-justice reform, including closing juvenile prisons like the two in Virginia. (Richard Ross)
A new poll suggests strong support for juvenile-justice reform, including closing juvenile prisons like the two in Virginia. (Richard Ross)
March 4, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. - A national survey shows strong support for the kinds of juvenile-justice reform backed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The governor has proposed shutting Virginia's two large juvenile prisons and replacing them with a range of smaller, community-based corrections programs.

In a new survey as part of the "Youth First" initiative, Americans support that by 3 to 1.

Da'Quon Beaver of Richmond, who was convicted as an adult at age 14, said he spent his youth in those prisons. He said it broke connections with his family that could have helped him become a better man.

"A few days before Christmas, a big riot had broke off and the facility went on lockdown," he said, "and I remember like it was yesterday - I just cried in my cell for just hours and hours."

Some have criticized reform as being soft on crime. The General Assembly largely has been silent on the issue, suggesting that major reform might not come this year.

Pollster Mike Bocian with GBA Strategies said his group found a bedrock of support for the idea that juveniles can change and should be given the chance. He said people across the board supported rehabilitation and prevention programs - even those who had been crime victims.

"Rigorous rehabilitation, treatment, on education and on training," he said, "we found the support is actually quite similar among people who themselves or have family members who have been victims of crime, versus those who have not."

According to Youth First, locking up a juvenile in Virginia can cost 14 times as much as sending him or her to school. The group said incarceration also has much higher recidivism rates than rehabilitation.

The state's two juvenile institutions were established more than a century ago. Beaver said everything that goes on at an adult prison also happens there, often with little or no preparation for life outside.

"So, for 12 hours a day, our kids aren't doing anything," he said. "They're not learning. They're not being rehabilitated. They're sitting in a unit with no windows, watching a box TV with about four channels."

About 1,500 juveniles are locked up in Virginia. An outsized proportion is African-American, despite similar rates of criminal behavior among kids of other races.

More information is online at youthfirstinitiative.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA