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.

The federal administration policy of breaking up families as an intentional strategy aimed at refugee families has shocked the conscience of most Americans. Taking innocent children out of the arms of their mothers or fathers and shuffling them off to a “facility” without any explanation or known plans for their future has to be one of the cruelest acts of the federal government ever and is completely abhorrent to the moral standards of most Americans.

At the same time we condemn these evil acts of a misdirected federal agency and work in every way in the courts and through the ballot box to get these policies changed, it is important that the subject of isolating children be viewed in its larger context. As more is learned about the traumatic effects separation and isolation can have on the future emotional stability, mental health, and behavior of children, the necessity of reforming the way that our juvenile justice system functions becomes obvious.

Information gathered by The Commonwealth Institute shows that 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. Data shows the longer a child is held in a facility the more likely it is they will commit a crime.

I recently talked with Valerie Slater who heads RISE for Youth: United Families, Safe Communities on my television show “Virginia Report.” Listen to that conversation on YouTube. She points out that racial disparities in Virginia’s juvenile system are higher than the national average. In Virginia, black youth are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, and youth of Latino heritage are 2½ times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Likewise, the higher the rate of poverty in their community the more likely children are to be sent to youth prisons. As Valerie wrote recently, “we must dismantle, once and for all, the systems that allow the institutionalization of children. The best way to protect and rehabilitate children is to ensure their parents are the foundation of their support, whether in their homes, communities or suitable community-based environments. There are community-based alternatives to youth prisons that work better, cost less, and help young people get the support they need to get back on track.”

At the recent meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) I learned of the important work being done by a committee in NCSL to identify the principles that states should adhere to in reforming their juvenile justice systems. It is being demonstrated in states that it is possible to reform the system to reduce crime and recidivism, enhance public safety, and produce good citizens from those who in the past may have been referred to as criminals. I am pleased that Virginia is making improvements, but we must stay vigilant to continue progress.

As a nation of high moral standards, we must insist that the youngest and most vulnerable among us have an opportunity to succeed even if they are in our poorest communities or seeking asylum for their safety among us.

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