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Virginia Bill Proposes Public Health Approach to Juvenile Justice


Friday, March 18, 2022   

The Virginia General Assembly has given bipartisan approval to a measure one advocate believes could lead to significant changes to the Commonwealth's youth justice system.

The bill outlined how management of the state's juvenile justice system could transition from the Public Safety Secretary to the Health Secretary.

Valerie Slater, executive director of the group RISE for Youth, said it could mark an important step away from Virginia's current punitive approach to youth justice. She pointed out many kids in the system have mental health conditions not addressed by the current model.

"And we are still treating them as if there is a public safety threat," Slater asserted. "When in actuality, we need to begin to address the traumas and begin to heal children."

The bill would establish a work group to research the feasibility and benefits of the transition. If Gov. Glenn Youngkin signs the measure, the group would then issue a final report by November on what the process could look like.

Slater argued Virginia's current juvenile justice model was built for a pre-pandemic world. She noted children have undergone new stressors in recent years, and the Commonwealth's current system fails to account for it.

"The pandemic, of course, it mandated and necessitated that we take certain steps," Slater acknowledged. "But we've forgotten that those steps are going to have very real ramifications on our youngest citizens: our children. "

A nonpartisan audit commission report found the number of kids in Virginia's juvenile justice system dropped from more than 9,500 in 2011 to about 3,000 last year, largely due to diversion programs, but Black children were referred into the court system at a significantly higher rate than their white counterparts.

Nationally, a new report from The Sentencing Project revealed U.S. children were locked up in juvenile facilities nearly 250,000 times in 2019, and Black and Latinx kids were 50% more likely to face incarceration.

Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate for The Sentencing Project and the report's author, said detaining kids can have lasting impacts.

"For one, there's self-harm. Children are at a much higher risk of suicide having been detained," Rovner explained. "Not surprisingly, kids who are detained are much less likely to graduate from high school."

The report noted the total number of kids in detention dropped between 2010 and 2019, when arrests of children also dropped by nearly 60%.

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