Lawmakers Working to Break Cycles Within Juvenile Criminal Justice System

Sep 2, 2016

What happens when children get involved in the criminal justice system? Oftentimes, they get sent to large juvenile facilities, which critics say leads to a cycle of getting re-arrested and ultimately a life of crime and imprisonment. Now state leaders are trying to break that cycle. 

When Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran was a young prosecutor in Arlington back in the 80's, he saw a disturbing pattern unfold again and again. It’s something that happens far from the public eye in courtrooms and juvenile detention centers across Virginia. 

“We were sending kids downstate. They weren’t receiving any services. They’d come back to the community and they’d just re-offend."

Now Moran is trying to transform the juvenile justice system in Virginia, moving away from the large-scale prisons that kept kids far away from their families. Instead, he want to move toward a system of small-scale neighborhood programs that are near the families of the juveniles and where services can be provided to help them escape the criminal justice system. 

“We’re trying to bring an end to that cycle, particularly with young people because the young people are going to get out. And why not provide them some services, some education, some skills so that they don’t commit another offense?"

When Moran became Secretary of Public Safety, a job that oversees the state prison system, juvenile offenders were shipped off to large facilities in remote corners of the state — far away from their families and services that could get them back into the community.

“We immediately recognized that we have two very aged facilities that are not providing any therapeutic services to the residents of those facilities."

So he worked with lawmakers to cut a deal — close one of those two large facilities and reinvest the money into smaller community-based facilities. That compromise also includes a new 64-bed correctional facility in Chesapeake, which Moran says is necessary because some situations will require time in a secure facility to keep communities safe. Amy Woolard at the Legal Aid Justice Center says closing the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center is a good first step. 

“It’s large. It’s old. It’s built on an adult correctional model. The prison itself is at half capacity if that, so it’s very expensive to run, and we’re just not seeing the outcomes from locking kids up."

She says she wants to see the money from closing Beaumont be reinvested into services for juvenile offenders and alternative placements, but she’s worried that the state’s budget shortfall might jeopardize the transformation that’s already taking place. 

Credit Dave Nakayama / Creative Commons

“There’s going to be a lot of tightening over the coming months, and foremost in our minds is protecting this reinvestment and making sure these alternatives to incarceration are adequate and they are sustainable."

Republican Delegate Dave Ablo, who is chairman of the House Courts of Justice, says he agrees with Secretary Moran’s plans for transforming the juvenile justice system. But he says just because it’s a great idea doesn’t mean the funding is there to make it happen. 

“The economy is flat. Fairfax County’s growth rate is zero percent. There’s going to be a lot of great ideas with a lot of requests for money, and this will be one of them."

For advocates of the transformation plan, the current budget fight has a disaster scenario looming. What if the state gets money from closing one facility at Beaumont only to build another facility in Chesapeake .. without reinvesting any of the money toward community-based programs, serves and alternative placements? Moran says he’ll fight to make sure both sides of the compromise hold.

“That is a fight that we’re going to have to take to the legislature and hopefully receive their support because in difficult budget times like we’re experiencing right now, that will be a big battle."

Moran says the ultimate goal is to reduce the correctional footprint for juveniles by about two-thirds, a goal he says will have long term benefits for young people, their communities and taxpayers.