Legislators are reconvening to hash out a two-year state budget. While much of the focus has centered on Medicaid, there's another discussion happening. Saraya Wintersmith reports activists are trying to draw attention to negotiations about the future of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Community activist Arthur Burton says Virginia's juvenile justice system is at a critical juncture. Since 2005, the state has taken steps to downsize its juvenile incarceration real estate. Now, lawmakers and the Northam administration are negotiating how many new facilities to build and where to put them.
Juvenile intake cases have been decreasing for more than a decade and many young adults in the system now are African-Americans from metro areas like Richmond and Hampton Roads - places where there are pockets of poverty. Burton says it's time for Virginia to shift away from building large, expensive youth prisons and instead, build those struggling areas by financing more community-based alternatives.
“Why are we locking up children? Why are we spending hundreds of thousands of dollars when we could easily be in communities preventing this behavior and making sure children have healthy and safe and economically sound lives,” he says. “Either we’re going to arrest behavior or we’re going to arrest individuals.”
Public safety officials say the agency is on a path of positive transformation. The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has implemented free rides for family visits and a more rehabilitative approach for corrections staff to follow. Last June, the agency shut down the 270-bed Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Powhatan County. But, less than a year after closing the youth prison and investing part of the savings into third-party service coordination and community-based programs, lawmakers are considering rebuilding it.
Prince William Delegate Luke Torian (D-52) chairs the House panel that deals with financing construction. He says the state planned to borrow money to rebuild a center in Chesterfield and construct a new one in Chesapeake. But, the necessary land transfer fell through after activists intervened. Just before lawmakers returned home last month, Torian explained his subcommittee determined Virginia could save about $38 million in construction and operation costs by rebuilding at the Beaumont site.
“A decision was made to put in the budget that we would build a facility at Beaumont because we already own the property. Now, whether that's good or not, I don't know. But, we're trying to do the very best we can and be good stewards of the Commonwealth's resources,” he said in an interview with WCVE.
Members of the Senate and the Governor’s administration prefer a different plan. That proposal includes two, slightly smaller, more therapy-oriented correctional centers; One would have 60 beds in Isle of Wight, and the other 96 beds in Chesterfield. But a local coalition led by Valerie Slater with RISE for Youth is lobbying for a more radical change in Virginia’s juvenile justice system.
“RISE is advocating that no monies be allocated to build any juvenile correctional centers. No new youth prisons,” says Slater.
Pointing to reports from the Annie E. Casey Foundation she and others say a regional system of small facilities - each with a maximum of 30 beds - is better for youth rehabilitation. She wants the state to focus its resources on the kids who need it most and allow youth to stay close to their families.
“Young people and families strengthened means stronger communities,” she tells WCVE.
Public safety officials say 30 beds is a nice goal, but it is impractical and expensive. Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian Moran says the administration will continue to pursue a two-facility plan.
As lawmakers negotiate the budget, Slater, Art Burton and their organizations will be at the capitol trying to convince lawmakers that model is ineffective.
“You only break the cradle to prison pipeline by breaking the pipeline,” says Burton. “You're not going to break it if you leave it intact. Either we’re going break it and if we’re going to break it, let's break it now and let's start diverting kids and let's put more preventive programs in place so that there's less kids coming through the pipeline.”
Burton and Slater are planning to hold a vigil and hand-deliver advocacy postcards to elected officials in two separate events this week.