Rick Wilson: State Leads Pack in Juvenile Justice

Charleston Gazette

Winston Churchill once observed that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.” And we West Virginians are nothing if not Americans.

So it turns out that state leaders have done the right thing on some pretty knotty issues after years of trying other things.

One example is Gov. Tomblin’s leadership in dealing with prison overcrowding. The issue had been studied for years. Most people who were paying attention have known for years that despite a flat population and low crime rate, we were incarcerating more and more people longer and burning up tax dollars that could better have been used elsewhere — and we weren’t making the public any safer.

With the backing of state leaders and assistance of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, Tomblin pushed legislation in 2013 aimed at addressing the problems. Now, for the first time in years, prison numbers are going down and the state is adopting evidence-based methods for reducing recidivism.

I have many friends who felt that the 2013 legislation didn’t go far enough. While I agree it could have been better, progress is undeniable. And with the expansion of Medicaid and the move toward drug courts statewide, we also have a chance at chipping away at a substance abuse epidemic that has filled jails, damaged communities and destroyed lives all over the state.

I’m hoping that West Virginia can make similar progress on another knotty problem — the juvenile justice system, which can without hyperbole be described as a hot mess.

Here again, people have known for years that there are serious problems with the system. Back in 2001, for example, my late co-worker, Carol Sharlip, published a report that focused on huge racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, a pattern which persists to this day.

At the time, African American youths made up 4 percent of the overall juvenile population but comprised 18 percent of youth placed in detention. The racial disparities nearly doubled at every stage in the system, from arrest to trial to conviction to sentencing. Among other things, the report called for a greater use of community-based corrections rather than incarceration for young offenders who weren’t a threat to public safety.

Sharlip’s report sparked some interest at the time in the state Supreme Court and Legislature, although nothing substantial was done.

Fast forward 14 years, and something pretty much has to be done. Lawsuits and a host of troubles have forced some juvenile facilities to close and forced a massive restructuring of the system. Overcrowding is a persistent problem, which has resulted in unrest and at least one “near riot” at a juvenile facility. Today, the system is unsafe for both juveniles and the adults who work in it.

Here again, West Virginia is an outlier — not in a good way. Around the country, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports: “A sea change is underway in our nation’s approach to dealing with young people who get in trouble with the law. Although we still lead the industrialized world in the rate at which we lock up young people, the youth confinement rate in the United States is rapidly declining.”

To be exact, the rate of youth confinement has dropped by 41 percent nationwide since 1995, without causing a surge in juvenile crime. Rather, “The public is safer, youth are being treated less punitively and more humanely, and governments are saving money — because our juvenile justice systems are reducing their reliance on confinement,” the foundation says.

Too bad that isn’t true in West Virginia. Our state is one of only five jurisdictions where the youth incarceration rate has grown. We’re leading the pack in the wrong direction.

Further, over 70 percent of state youth in placement are there for nonviolent offenses or misdemeanors, like truancy, theft and technical violations. Fewer than 12 percent were convicted of serious violent crimes like homicide, sexual assault, robbery or aggravated assault.

For nonviolent offenders, community-based corrections systems are more effective and less damaging over the course of a lifetime than incarceration. Locking up young people who are not a threat to public safety leads to all kinds of negative outcomes, including lower levels of education, earnings, assets, lower rates of marriage, strained ties to family and community and cycling in and out of the system. It can make a bad situation much worse for individuals, families and communities.

It’s also expensive for taxpayers. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, it costs $83,000 per year to incarcerate a young person in a Division of Juvenile Services facility, while housing one in a DHHR facility can cost over $100,000. It is estimated that West Virginia spent $31 million to lock up young people here and an additional $25 to $30 million in out-of-state placements.

Fortunately, Gov. Tomblin and other state leaders are taking action. The governor announced the formation of a juvenile justice task force which will work with Pew Charitable Trusts to address problems in the system. Pew is a national group with expertise in the issues and extensive experience of working in other states.

The task force’s mission is “to review West Virginia’s juvenile justice system and data and develop system-led recommendations to improve outcomes for youth, families and communities, enhance accountability for juvenile offenders and the system and contain taxpayer costs by focusing resources on serious juvenile offenders.” Senate President Jeff Kessler has likewise appointed a bipartisan group of senators to work on the issue.

I’m hopeful that West Virginia will seize this chance to develop a better way to deal with juvenile offenders, one that promotes public safety, improves the lives of young people and the communities in which they live, and redirects the savings in cost to more productive uses.

We’ve tried everything else.

Wilson, director of a West Virginia reform committee, is a Gazette contributing columnist.