Ken Blackwell: Urgent need for reform of juvenile justice system

The West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice last week exposed policies that are damaging families, communities and taxpayers in West Virginia.

Those policies include approaches that remove youth from their families at alarming rates, even those with no prior contact with the courts. I am very troubled by these findings.

Any parent can attest how hard the teenage years are, even for the best children. The physical and emotional changes taking place put a strain on all their relationships: with parents, siblings, pastors and teachers alike. Juvenile justice policies must help youngsters learn how to cope with their frustrations, not just punish them.

The government must avoid making things worse for these youth and their families. If a teen has done something wrong, they should be held accountable for their bad behavior. But removing a child from their home should be a last resort.

Unfortunately, West Virginia’s policies increasingly result in youth being removed from home and placed in juvenile facilities, and we are not talking about violent teens who sometimes may be appropriately detained.

But in one of the two youth-serving agencies with the authority to remove an offender from their home — the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) — more than half (51 percent) have done nothing more serious than skip school, run away from home or be incorrigible: so-called “status offenses.” Their actions would be legal if done by an adult, but are deemed delinquent when committed by a juvenile.

In the other agency — the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) — more than half (52 percent) of youth are being held for a non-violent offense.

Many of these youngsters have never before been in trouble with the law. Of those removed from their homes by DHHR in 2012, nearly half had never been arrested for a crime or referred to court. Of those removed by DJS in 2013, one quarter had no prior history.

Why is the system so eager to pull these children out of their homes? Shouldn’t the agencies first try to help the youngsters and their families deal with the issues causing the conflict?

Unless there is evidence of abuse, the family home is by far and away the best place for a teen. It is their family relationships that are the strongest, and the family has the greatest interest in the individual child. Systems can’t love children, only people can.

The Task Force’s work details even more existing misguided policies. The out-of-home placements are not for brief periods. DHHR youth are held in the facilities for 12 months on average. And those in DJS facilities for a misdemeanor (the lowest level crimes) are held an average of eight months. Even more vexing is that 20 percent of all status and delinquent youth placed out-of-home by DHHR in 2012 were moved out-of-state and held for an average of 23 months.

And West Virginia taxpayers are on the hook for more than $100,000 per year, per youth. When we know that removing these low-level, non-violent youth from their homes doesn’t work, this high price tag adds costly insult to injury.

At a time when adolescents are already having difficulty adjusting to the changes in their lives, does it make sense to add to those troubles by taking them away from their home, friends, school, church and neighborhood? And does it help to put them in facilities with other youth who also have been removed from their home? Or does that make matters worse?

The skills that teens learn in order to survive inside a juvenile facility are more likely to lead them into a life of crime—the very thing we want to prevent. Instead, we should be ensuring these youth become part of West Virginia’s future and West Virginia’s workforce.

The Task Force that uncovered these facts has recommended changes to West Virginia’s juvenile policies to protect public safety and create a more effective and efficient juvenile justice system.

I encourage you to pay close attention to the reforms they propose. West Virginia needs a system where juveniles aren’t just locked up, but given a chance to redeem themselves and live productive lives.

Ken Blackwell is a signatory of Right on Crime, a national movement of conservative leaders who support sensible and proven reforms to our juvenile and criminal justice system.

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