By Jonathan Mattise
West Virginia is joining the Pew Charitable Trusts to study its juvenile justice system and find better ways to keep youthful offenders out of detention centers.
West Virginia nearly doubled the rate at which it sent youths to juvenile facilities from 1997 to 2011, a stark contrast to decreases nationwide. West Virginia had higher rates than the other three states with increases: Nebraska, North Dakota and Idaho.
The study will review programs within the Division of Juvenile Services, Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, three West Virginia Supreme Court justices, state lawmakers and Pew representatives announced the initiative Wednesday.
Tomblin expects the review to be complete by December. That would give time for lawmakers to consider the suggestions during the January-to-March legislative session.
The governor cited successes in the state Justice Reinvestment Act, which focuses on community-based supervision, risk assessments, investment in drug courts and other community-based treatment options for substance abuse.
Tomblin said he will also create a state task force focused on juvenile justice and child welfare.
In January, a lawsuit spurred the Department of Juvenile Services to adopt new policies and practices to address issues raised, including strip searches and disciplinary procedures.
A judge also ordered the closure of Industrial Home for Youth and the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center in Salem.
The lawsuit alleged that inmates at the former Industrial Home for Youth were illegally strip searched, placed in solitary confinement, and denied adequate access to exercise and educational materials. It was filed by Mountain State Justice, a public interest law firm in April 2012 with state Supreme Court, which later moved the case to Kanawha County Circuit Court.
After the lawsuit was filed, it evolved into an examination of the Department of Juvenile Services.