Wide disparities, high recidivism afflict Virginia’s juvenile justice system, report says

Black children are more than twice as likely to enter the system

By: - December 13, 2021 4:08 pm

Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center is Virginia’s largest. (NBC12)

A state watchdog agency found that wide disparities remain in Virginia’s juvenile justice system, even as the number of children involved has declined dramatically in the last few years.

The report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which oversees state agencies, also recommends closing the only state-operated juvenile detention center — in Chesterfield County — and replacing it with smaller, regional facilities.

According to the commission, Black children were referred to courts at more than twice the rate of White children over the last decade — a trend that held true for all levels of offenses, from felonies to nonviolent misdemeanors. Nearly 65 percent of those referrals came from law enforcement, according to the same report, but schools were also nearly twice as likely to refer Black students to the system than White students.

“One potential contributing factor may be that law enforcement historically has not received training that sufficiently covers several topics that may relate to disproportionate enforcement,” staff analysts wrote in the report. That includes cultural competency and implicit bias training, which have been expanded under new requirements recently passed by the General Assembly. 

But there are still unexplained variations in how often Black children are referred to the system, including wide geographic disparities across Virginia. In Alexandria, for example, irrespective of offense, Black youth are 1.3 times more likely to be referred to courts after being arrested. In Richmond, they’re nearly five times as likely. The quality of legal representation for all youth defendants can also differ widely, with court-appointed attorneys especially unlikely to have the expertise needed to adequately defend their clients, analysts found.

“There’s clearly an issue with training,” said Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, a legislative member of the commission. “And being an attorney myself, I feel like I’m in a safe place to say this — that we have sort of this consistent finding that attorneys are not properly educated in the field they’re now practicing in.”

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, sits with her colleagues on the floor of the chamber. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Addressing those front-end problems was just one component of a sweeping 184-page report that also discussed deeper challenges with the effectiveness of Virginia’s juvenile justice system. In some ways, there have been significant improvements since 2016, when the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice began a “transformation effort” that aimed to refocus the program from punishment to rehabilitation. From 2011 to 2021, the number of children involved in the juvenile justice system has dropped from 9,551 to a little less than 3,000 — at least partially thanks to declining arrests and efforts to place more youth in diversion programs such as counseling or community service, analysts found.

The pandemic saw the largest single-year drop in participation, and referrals could increase “to some extent” once it’s over, according to the report. But overall, experts estimate that the number of children involved in the criminal justice system will continue to decline over the next several years.

State funding, however, hasn’t matched the decline. In the fiscal year that ended in June of 2020, Virginia spent nearly $250 million on juvenile justice services, nearly entirely from its own coffers rather than federal funding sources. And while the state only runs a single correctional center, Bon Air in Chesterfield County, it funds nearly a third of the costs for 24 locally operated juvenile detention centers. Over the last two decades, all of those facilities have remained open, despite a sharp decline in the number of children living there. 

“As of fiscal year 2021, about 70 percent of [juvenile detention center] beds were not being used and very similar patterns exist in all regions of the state,” said analyst Drew Dickinson, who led the commission’s study. In general, Virginia has more facilities — and more capacity at those facilities — than nine other nearby states. 

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The report found that closing or consolidating some of those detention centers could help save money, but the state “does not have operational control over those facilities,” Dickinson pointed out. Analysts suggested several potential policy options, including lowering the funding for detention centers operating under a certain capacity or directing the Department of Juvenile Justice to identify specific facilities that should be closed. Still, the state has limited options when it comes to reducing unused bed space.

Another finding: Programming at detention centers appears to be largely ineffective at reducing recidivism. While most are generally compliant with safety standards, analysts found more than half of the facilities — including the state-run juvenile correctional center in Bon Air — either don’t use evidence-based rehabilitative programs or rely on services that aren’t likely to reduce reoffending, according to available research. Analysts found that nearly 70 percent of children released from rehabilitative programs are reconvicted within two years.

And despite the fact that most of the state’s spending on juvenile detention centers goes toward education, facilities follow a traditional school year, missing out on opportunities to offer remedial education to the children who live there — “many of whom are already academically behind their peers,” the report found. The Virginia Department of Education is responsible for overseeing the system’s educational program, but no longer conducts on-site quality reviews, according to analysts.

The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center outside of Staunton. (Via Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center website)

Dickinson said there are other barriers to successfully reintegrating children from the juvenile justice system back into their communities, including a shortage of step-down services such as housing and work release programs. And children who are convicted of felony-equivalent offenses in juvenile court can’t have their records expunged.

“This is in contrast with recent changes to state law that allowed certain felony records for adults to be eligible for sealing,” Dickinson told lawmakers. Developing an automatic expungement process for some juvenile offenses was another recommendation made in the report, which also addressed potential solutions for improving legal representation and adding more oversight to educational and rehabilitative programming.

One of the biggest recommendations, though, was closing the state’s juvenile correctional center in Bon Air and opening smaller, regional treatment facilities to replace it. With 284 beds, Bon Air is one of the largest juvenile detention centers in the country and “was designed to provide secure confinement, not necessarily foster a positive rehabilitative environment for youth,” the report found. It’s also consistently operating under its capacity and is more than 75 miles away from most residents’ families. 

The state formed a task force to examine potential replacements in 2016, but there’s still no consensus on the size, number or location of future facilities. In the meantime, analysts recommended opening a smaller, modernized facility on the same grounds to improve care for the children already living there.

Still, the prospect of closing or consolidating both locally and state-run correctional centers raised concerns from some lawmakers, even with some facilities located within a 45-minute drive of one another. 

“There’s concern from me, and I’m sure others, because not everybody has a car,” Herring said. “So transportation could be an issue. And separation from family is different for a 14-year-old than a 17-year-old. I just hope those factors are considered if someone decides to look at consolidation.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

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