A national nonprofit tasked with improving public policy plans to help West Virginia examine jailed young adults in order to craft policies that will keep them out of prison.
The Pew Charitable Trusts announced Tuesday it will work with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the state Supreme Court, legislative leadership and others to review West Virginia’s juvenile justice system in an effort to provide data-driven suggestions for improvement.
“We will encourage collaboration and cooperation and develop data and research driven policies to better serve our kids, and prepare them to become contributing members of society,” Tomblin said Wednesday morning at a press conference in the Capitol.
That includes evaluating current efforts by not only the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety — which oversees juvenile justice — but also the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education. Tomblin said the state also could examine paying to send certain juvenile offenders to other states because of a lack of proper care in West Virginia, a costly practice that has received increased scrutiny from lawmakers during recent legislative sessions.
Jake Horowitz, a state policy director for Pew, said the organization plans to look at the hometowns and race of juvenile offenders, what crimes they’re committing and what programs are working better than others to reduce recidivism. In turn, they can use that data to help the state government entities charged with rehabilitating these youth offenders do a better job.
He acknowledged the state juvenile justice system already is tasked with working together to improve the system. However, Horowitz said it can be helpful for an outside entity to coordinate those efforts in an attempt to get government agencies to work together more effectively and efficiently.
“What I think it comes down to is, this requires a lot of work. Everyone in the room today, and your legislators and agency officials all have day jobs, the day-to-day administration critical to juvenile justice functions,” Horowitz said, stressing there is an impetus for change from state leaders.
“Sometimes you need a little extra support to take a systemic look and deeper data analysis to help pull these stakeholders together, to do the kind of legwork to surface ideas.”
Juvenile justice advocates and community leaders have raised concerns about the state’s juvenile justice consistently, doing so more frequently in recent years.
From 1997 to 2011, the number of juveniles committed to a facility in West Virginia increased from 192 to 327. That increase in the rate of committed juveniles — those sentenced to serve time at a facility — of 93 percent was, by far, the largest jump in the nation, according to a Pew analysis of U.S. Department of Justice data.
As recently as March 2013, Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research cited these other studies in a report called “Incarceration of Juveniles in West Virginia.” The report outlines issues with the system and suggests changes, including closing some juvenile facilities in order to use them as adult prisons.
The proportion of black teens compared to all offenders in the juvenile justice system continues to be a problem.
In 1997, 25 percent of youths committed to a juvenile justice facility in West Virginia were black. In 2010 it was 23 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Census said black residents represented 3.4 percent of West Virginia’s total population in 2010.
The Rev. Matthew Watts, a community activist in Charleston’s West Side neighborhood, and others have consistently criticized the racial disparity of juvenile offenders in West Virginia while advocating for local rehabilitation programs. In his speech Wednesday, the governor specifically mentioned looking at the demographics of youth offenders while embracing a community-based approach to treatment and fixing the system.
“We can and we must do more to redirect our young people before they become part of the adult corrections system,” Tomblin said.
The state did recently shift juvenile offenders from the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem in an attempt to both address systemic problems at the facility and re-purpose the property for adult offenders. The move came months after a lengthy legal battle initiated by Mountain State Justice on behalf of youth offenders at the facility.
The original lawsuit accused the Industrial Home, at the time the only medium-to-maximum security facility for juvenile offenders in the state, of focusing too little on rehabilitation and too much on punishment. A state-appointed investigator and special judge eventually agreed the facility was not conducive for helping youth offenders as the juveniles were treated too much like adult inmates. Special Judge Omar Aboulhosn eventually ordered the facility be closed.
Tomblin and the state championed the changes at Salem as evidence West Virginia is committed to addressing juvenile and adult justice problems. The governor mentioned the re-purposed facility Wednesday as part of the state’s larger justice reinvestment initiative.
In 2012 the state took a similar approach to the plan announced Wednesday in creating policy changes for the adult corrections system. It worked with the Council of State Governments to amass data on the system and eventually enact changes in West Virginia law. Those changes and the general focus on better serving adult inmates led to 1,000 fewer offenders in adult facilities than anticipated, Tomblin said.
He hopes the Pew review will lead to a similar outcome.
“Basically, what we need to look at is the whole system and how we can better serve these kids,” Tomblin said after the announcement.
Horowitz said Pew will likely provide data it has compiled during regular taskforce meetings over the next few months, shifting toward possible policy changes in the fall. Tomblin promised a report from the state using the Pew data by December.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.