By Dave Mistich
Recently, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has been touting the successes of last year’s Justice Reinvestment Act in reducing prison and jail populations, as well as reducing the recidivism rate for prior offenders. While those initiatives have proved successful for adults, problems remain in the juvenile justice system.
On Wednesday, Tomblin and other state officials announced a partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts in hopes to better understand some of those issues and make improvements.
“Between 1997 and 2011, West Virginia experienced the largest increase in youths confined to juvenile facilities of any state in the country and was one of only four states in the United States to increase commitment rates even as other states were able to reduce both juvenile crime and commitments,” Tomblin said of the issues faced by the state’s juvenile justice system.
A 2013 study from Pew shows West Virginia saw a 94% increase in juvenile commitment during the 15-year period Tomblin mentioned, ranking the state worst in the country during those years. In 2011, the state housed 327 juvenile offenders, up from 192 in 1997.
Despite the state closing the Youth Industrial Home in Salem last year after a lawsuit and criticism over it’s ineffectiveness on rehabilitation, Tomblin pointed to the results of that closure as providing better opportunities for young offenders.
“Young people once housed at Salem were transferred to our juvenile centers where they are receiving better educational opportunities in an environment that better promotes rehabilitation,” said Tomblin.
In hopes to improve further, state officials are teaming up with the Pew Charitable Trusts to comprehensively study the juvenile justice system. The goal, Tomblin said, is to implement research driven methods to help shape policy that keeps young people out of trouble while saving taxpayer money.
As part of the study, Pew will evaluate programs from the Division of Juvenile Services, the Department of Health and Human Resources, and the state Department of Education. They will also examine demographics of youth offenders and what crimes are being committed.
“This is about achieving more public safety, this is about improving outcomes for kids, and it’s about enhancing accountability,” said Pew state policy director Jake Horowitz. “It’s about doing all of those things while curtailing the taxpayer burdens of the corrections system.”
House Speaker Tim Miley was among the lawmakers, Supreme Court Justices, and other officials that joined Governor Tomblin for Wednesday’s announcement.
“Whenever we as a legislative body or as individual members–or at the governor’s office, for that matter–tackle anything within the criminal justice system, there’s always concern that that means we’re going to be more lenient,” said Miley. “That’s not necessarily what this study is going to reveal to us.”
Miley echoed Gov. Tomblin and other state officials in emphasizing rehabilitation rather than incarceration and providing opportunities for young people to be contributing members of society.
“We always lose sight of the fact that there is life after punishment. Obviously, community safety is paramount,” Miley explained. “But, if we’re going to put people in our criminal justice system with an expectation of leaving that system, we have to be prepared for life after punishment.”
Tomblin said an Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare will soon be created to review data trends, evaluate the programs for juvenile delinquents, and make policy recommendations for future legislation.
Pew’s study is expected to be complete by December, allowing lawmakers time to examine the findings in time for the next regular session of the legislature, which begins in January.