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March 23, 2016

In the Budget: Progress for Virginia’s Youth and Communities

Holding youth accountable for their actions is important. And so is setting the groundwork so that they can become productive adults. That’s why a wide range of Virginians are embracing the need to transform the state’s juvenile justice system, and why the General Assembly’s actions this session to improve outcomes and reduce recidivism for youthful offenders are worth celebrating.

The need to get youth out of the state’s failed prisons is urgent. Every month that youth are held in the state’s prisons increases the chances that they will be re-arrested, no matter the original crime or other risk factors. That’s a counter-productive system. And the impact does not fall on all communities equally. Youth with mental illness, black youth, and youth who are from high-poverty communities are far more likely than other youth to be held in the state’s failed youth prisons.

The budget that legislators passed on March 11 takes a big first step to reform this broken system by creating the flexibility and structure the Department of Juvenile Justice needs to provide appropriate community-based accountability and treatment programs for about 150 youth. That’s about half of all the youth who, according to the agency’s projections, would otherwise be held in one of the state’s large, outdated youth prisons. This is a major step forward, since such alternatives have been shown to be effective at reducing subsequent offenses.

More issues remain to be worked out, however. In particular, how the state will move on facilities for other youth who are placed under the direct care of the Department of Juvenile Justice. 

The governor’s budget proposal included capital funding to plan and build two new, smaller youth prisons that, together, could have held about 150 youth. The legislature rejected this plan and, instead, set up a task force to study future juvenile justice facility needs and provided planning money for one new youth prison. And it instructed the task force to consider a number of important factors and options, including whether to use space “in existing local and regional secure detention facilities, group homes, and private residential facilities,” and the projected impact of the options on the factors that impact recidivism

The recommendations of the task force, and the eventual plan adopted by the state, will be critical to whether the changes to Virginia’s state juvenile justice system significantly improve the outcomes for all Virginia youth who are committed to the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Everyone benefits when youth are successful and communities are safer. That’s why we should celebrate the legislature’s embrace of the plan to get about 150 youth out of the state’s failed prisons, even as more work remains on determining the path forward for other youth.

–Laura Goren, Research Director

The Commonwealth Institute

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