By Kate White and Phil Kabler
Joined by Supreme Court justices and leaders of the House and Senate, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Wednesday a comprehensive review of the state’s juvenile justice system, to be undertaken by the Pew Charitable Trust.
“With Pew’s support, we can take a comprehensive look at all aspects of our juvenile system,” said Tomblin, announcing the review, to be completed by December so that recommendations can be addressed during the 2015 legislative session.
West Virginia has been plagued by reports that its juvenile justice system is inadequate. In 2012, Mountain State Justice sued the state Division of Juvenile Services and hired an expert group to study the now shuttered Salem Industrial Home for Youth. The study found that it was constructed like an adult prison and did not foster an attitude of rehabilitation. Division officials did not oppose the findings.
A circuit judge closed that home for youth and the lawsuit eventually expanded into an overall assessment of the DJS.
However, the shuffle of juveniles to facilities around the state since the closure of the mid-to-maximum-security facility in Salem has caused major safety and overcrowding issues, DJS officials have said.
Tomblin said he anticipates the study will recommend more community-based programs for juvenile offenders, similar to the conclusions of a year-long study of adult offenders completed in 2012.
That led to passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act in the 2013 legislative session, which, among other revisions, emphasizes sending adult offenders to drug courts and community corrections programs in lieu of prison sentences.
Tomblin noted that in its first year in effect, that legislation has exceeded expectations.
“For the first time in 16 years, our Corrections system has reduced the overall number of inmates,” he said, adding, “Today, we have 1,000 fewer people in our prisons than what was projected a few years ago.”
Justice Margaret Workman, who has emphasized juvenile justice reform during her tenure, said it is vital that the three branches of government again work together on juvenile justice issues.
“I am so thrilled that all branches of West Virginia government have come together because juvenile justice is too important not to,” she said.
Jake Horowitz, state policy director for Pew, said other states have had significant successes in reducing juvenile crime and juvenile commitments following similar studies.
“This is about achieving more public safety and improving outcomes for kids … while curtailing burdens on the Corrections system,” he said.
“You can get more public safety at less taxpayer expense,” he said.
Tomblin announced he would form the state Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare to coordinate efforts with representatives from Pew. The study will be at no cost to the state, he said.
Juvenile corrections officers have raised more concerns about their safety in recent months because of overcrowding at facilities after a circuit judge ordered the closure of two juvenile homes.
Elaine Harris, of the AFL-CIO’s Communications Workers of America, has called the overcrowding situation a crisis.
She said Wednesday’s announcement gives her hope that a long-term solution is being sought by the governor.
“I don’t think he wanted to try to jump in and fix one thing to cause a problem somewhere else. This is an approach that gets everybody to the table,” Harris said.
Stephanie Bond, acting director of the Department of Juvenile Services, addressed the overcrowding issues with legislators during an interim Finance Committee meeting last month.
She offered several solutions, such as taking advantage of programs in the state Department of Health and Human Resources that best suit low-level offenders such as runaways or truancy cases.
Bond has met with dozens of county judges about the matter, according to previous reports, in order to make sure judges understand the best way to provide services to juveniles.
The maximum-security Industrial Home for Youth was shut down after a 2012 lawsuit filed by Mountain State Justice against the Division of Juvenile Services. Also in Salem, the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center was shuttered.
The lawsuit alleged that staffers illegally strip-searched and confined inmates and instituted other practices directly contradicting portions of state code that define juvenile rights. Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn approved an undisclosed settlement in the case and Mountain State Justice and the DJS agreed to work together to address further issues at other facilities.