Reston, VA

Del. Ken Plum/File photoThis is an opinion column by Del. Ken Plum (D), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

I often quote from papers written by the staff of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis; they provide the most fact-based, nonpartisan, clear analysis of key issues facing Virginians.

Recently, I attended the 2015 Policy Summit held by the Institute in Richmond. Topics at the Summit included the declining state support for public schools in Virginia, accessing health care, and returning more money to the working poor through the Earned Income Tax Credit. One topic around which there seems to be a high level of political consensus developing was “Criminal Justice Reform: Opportunities to Save Money and Help Communities.”

In a paper published by The Commonwealth Institute, it was reported that Virginia keeps more youth incarcerated than most states. As of 2013, for which the most recent federal data is available, Virginia incarcerated 79 youth in state facilities for every 100,000 youth age 10 or older living in the state. That’s 75 percent higher than the national rate of 45 state incarcerated youth per 100,000 youth in the country.

But that does not mean that Virginians are safer or that more youth are diverted from criminal behavior. In fact, the opposite is true. According to data from the Department of Juvenile Justice, almost three-quarters of youth who have been held in the state’s juvenile prisons are convicted of another crime within three years of release. Of great concern is the fact that youth who are held in the state’s youth prisons for longer periods of time actually have higher rates of re-arrest within a year of release than youth who are held for shorter periods of time!

Virginia’s current youth prison system consists of two youth prisons, Bon Air and Beaumont, in the Richmond suburbs. More affluent areas like Fairfax County have established local alternative programs. The highest rates of commitment to the state youth prisons come from the localities that have the highest poverty levels. As the Institute reported, “not only is Virginia’s current system not working to rehabilitate youth and keep communities safe, it is also very expensive. The per capita cost of incarcerating youth in Virginia’s juvenile correctional centers was $148,214 in FY 2015.” Local programs are lower in cost as well as more effective at reducing recidivism.

Efforts have been underway to reform the current system for a number of years, but that movement needs to be accelerated. Wealthy communities are way ahead in establishing treatment programs, but these programs that are effective in keeping children out of trouble in the future must be extended to all localities regardless of wealth.

The state must resist any effort to dump the problem on localities without providing necessary funds to make alternative programs available. The pipeline from school to prison must be shut off. Alternative solutions that include intensive treatment for offenders and families can keep the community safe, rehabilitate young people before they become criminals, and save money.

There is widespread bipartisan agreement that progress needs to be accelerated in this area. It will bring justice to juveniles.

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