The Commonwealth of Virginia has transformed from a solidly red state to an increasingly progressive blue state in the last few decades. In April, Governor Ralph Northam made Virginia the first state in the South to pass anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. In July, the Governor also decriminalized low-level marijuana possession.
Despite this progress, the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice system remains decidedly less progressive than other states’. While the Commonwealth currently only has one state juvenile detention center and has seen a decline in the total number of youth incarcerated, recidivism remains a key issue. Annually, nearly three-fourths of Virginia’s youngest inmates are rearrested for new crimes within three years of their most recent release.
On the surface, it may seem progressive to only have one detention center, but around 75% of Bon Air inmates live more than an hour away. This leaves children feeling isolated and makes rehabilitation, which often involves working with families, even more challenging.
Virginia continues to take harsh and unproductive measures to discipline youths, utilizing solitary confinement and issuing juvenile life without parole sentences. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the rate at which students are referred to law enforcement is almost three times higher in Virginia than in the rest of the nation. Over a period of three years, nearly half of all juvenile criminal complaints in Chesterfield County were issued against students under 15 years of age.
Rise for Youth, a non-profit in Richmond, Virginia focused on juvenile justice reform, thinks that large youth prisons simply don't work. They prefer small, regionally based facilities that encourage positive youth development.
Many states have already taken that initiative. In July, the Governor of Illinois announced that he would close all juvenile detention centers and develop a regional system of community-based centers. In 2015, the Governor of South Dakota passed legislation that aligned societal welfare with financial interests, prioritizing supervision for those who pose the greatest safety risk to their communities and reallocating the budget to support alternative intervention programs. After Hawaii pursued juvenile justice reform, focusing on stakeholder input and quantitative research, the state saw a decline of 66% in the number of youths in a secure placement between 2013 and 2018.
The Commonwealth already has the infrastructure for smaller, community-based programs. The Department of Juvenile Justice offers an Apartment Living program in Virginia Beach that allows young men to find employment, continue their education, take anger management classes, get a driver’s license, and open a bank account, among other things.
The only problem? Young men can become candidates for the program only after they complete their sentence at a detention center. Why not offer this as an alternative to incarceration?
The Commonwealth should follow in the footsteps of other states in shifting to smaller, regional-based alternatives. But progress shouldn’t stop there, and the path forward is not completely straightforward. The school-to-prison pipeline needs to be addressed, sentencing and parole laws should be broadened, and, to address the root of the problem,, resources need to be reinvested in high-crime communities.
With all the dehumanizing jargon used to describe individuals in the juvenile justice system - delinquents, juvenile offenders, misdemeanants - it is easy to forget who we are talking about: children. Specifically, troubled children from low-income communities who are often victims themselves. The Commonwealth should be seeking to help these so-called delinquents learn from their mistakes and improve their lives, not punish them.
When the Governor of Illinois outlined her plan for reforming the juvenile justice system, she pledged to “infuse love in our policies and practices.” Is that really too much to ask?
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.