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Juvenile justice panel meets to discuss reforms

By By Jack Suntrup
Staff Writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Lawmakers, judges, educators and leaders from across the state gathered Friday at the Capitol for a forum on how to best reform the state’s juvenile justice system.

The West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice, commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, has been tasked with making a list of recommendations by December for the upcoming legislative session.

“[The goal is] to try to figure out a way to, first of all, prevent these infractions that some of our juveniles are committing,” Tomblin said, “and for those already in the system, to try to find a way to get them back on track, as far as education goes — keep them interested in a skill or a vocation — and make them productive members, keeping them out of the adult population prison system.”

Tomblin said that the solutions would be “data-driven,” analyzing what’s worked in other states to improve outcomes for troubled youth.

“We are hoping to acquire the data that will help us get a really good look at what our system looks like,” said Joseph Garcia, deputy general counsel in the Governor’s Office and chairman of the committee. “We’d like to understand the causes of where we’re placing kids and why we’re placing kids in certain placements.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts has studied three states’ systems in recent years — Georgia, Hawaii and Kentucky — and is now looking into West Virginia’s numbers, with no cost to the state, said Robin Olsen, manager of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project.

“Georgia, Kentucky and Hawaii developed fiscally sound, data-driven juvenile policies that will protect public safety, improve outcomes, enhance accountability and contain taxpayer costs,” Olsen said in an email. “The reforms focus expensive out-of-home resources on more serious offenders and increase community-based options to achieve better outcomes.”

Much of the panel’s discussion centered on how nonviolent, low-level offenders should be treated in the state’s juvenile justice system.

It costs $83,000 per year to incarcerate a minor in a West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services facility, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia.

There should be alternatives for some teens that may not deserve to be incarcerated, panelists said.

Additionally, putting impressionable teenagers in prison environments could cause youths get used to being in jail and lead to repeat stints, some panelists said.

One panelist, Nikita Jackson, a school-based probation officer in Cabell County, said her district has seen some initial success in pretrial diversion programs for teens that repeatedly miss school.

This past school year, Jackson said, about 60 teens signed a pretrial diversion contract to attend school. If they didn’t, they ended up in court. Jackson said that of those that signed the contract, only a handful wound up in front of a judge.

“This is the first year that we’ve had it, and the Board of Education has been very pleased with it so far,” Jackson said.

Mike Lorensen, a circuit judge from the Eastern Panhandle, voiced concerns about the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Being from the Eastern Panhandle, he said, placing kids in facilities across the state puts a burden on families, especially when there are adequate and closer facilities in nearby states, like Maryland and Virginia.

He said he hopes the state can find better ways to collaborate with neighboring states.

Judge Gary Johnson, from Nicholas County, said that to reduce juvenile offenses, the panel should look at ways they can help families and communities better support their children as well.

“We have to treat it as a community and family situation, not just focus on the child,” he said.

West Virginia officials have taken steps in recent years to reduce the state’s prison population, namely with the 2013 Justice Reinvestment Act that sought to place more lower-level offenders in drug court or on probation instead of incarcerating them.

Reach Jack Suntrup at, 304-348-5100 or follow @JackSuntrup on Twitter.

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