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Treatment of juvenile offenders criticized

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- The Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University released a white paper Friday that calls the state's juvenile incarceration program ineffective, while also presenting best practices that have been shown to decrease recidivism and increase educational attainment.

Researchers who compiled the report called "Incarceration of Juveniles in West Virginia" found that West Virginia is bucking the trend, in the wrong direction, on juvenile incarcerations. The Mountain State's rate of incarceration of youth increased by 60 percent from 1997 to 2010, based on a one-day snapshot.

During that same time, all of West Virginia's border states saw decreases by a minimum of 20 percent. Only Pennsylvania saw an increase, which was 7 percent.

The report noted that a small number of youthful offenders do pose a serious threat to the public and should be confined. However, incarcerating a broader group of youth wastes taxpayer dollars, "harms the well-being and dampens the future prospects of troubled and law-breaking youth."

The report also suggests that by taking the recommended steps to provide alternative rehabilitation programs and changing other policies, the overcrowding problem for adults in prison could also be helped.

"In the short-to medium-term, facilities now dedicated to juvenile detention could be closed and reopened for the adult population," states the report, completed by Calvin A. Kent, Kent N. Sowards and Jennifer L. Price. "This assumes that appropriate alternatives to youth incarceration exist. The longer-term solution is to expand childcare and Pre-K education programs as these have a positive effect on reducing the incidence of juvenile delinquency and perhaps recidivism."

By coincidence, one step intended to improve care of juvenile offenders was taken Friday when state officials announced that the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in Salem -- the only maximum-security juvenile prison -- will close and be converted to a mid-level adult prison.

Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn has condemned prison-like conditions at the facility, which houses juveniles convicted of murder and violent crime.

Under the plan, the 49 juveniles now in Salem's main building would move to other agency-run facilities. That would likely fill up remaining beds at those facilities, said Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Joe Thornton, whose department includes Juvenile Services as well as the Division of Corrections and the regional jails.

Juveniles ranging from ages 12 to 20 are now at Salem. Individuals convicted of juvenile offenses can be in juvenile custody until their 21st birthday.

"A 12-year-old should never be housed with a 20-year-old," Thornton said. "I don't care how mature you are as a 12-year-old, it's just not a good setting."

Officials then hope to transfer at least 300 minimum- to medium-security adult inmates who have been sentenced to prison but are serving their sentences in regional jails. West Virginia's prisons are at capacity, while the 10 regional jails are either full or have more inmates than they were designed to hold.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein told The Associated Press that his agency hoped to convert Salem by July 1, and expected needing few upgrades.

But officials must still find a suitable facility for the 23 juvenile sex offenders housed in a separate building on the Salem campus. Stephanie Bond, the new acting director of Juvenile Services, told the AP that these offenders require a secure setting that can offer rehabilitation along with conditions and programs appropriate for juveniles.

Rubenstein said that building at Salem, the Dr. Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, appears the ideal site for a long-term, in-patient substance abuse program for adults.

In its report, the Center for Business and Economic Research also cited the effectiveness of quality Pre-K programs, while also complimenting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's bill this session to increase funding for expanding Pre-K programs.

In states that have taken steps to increase access to effective early childhood programs, the high school completion rate has increased, there has been a decline in teen pregnancy and a reduction in juvenile delinquency.

The report also found that juvenile facilities are not cost-effective in terms of housing and rehabilitation for non-violent juvenile offenders, while community-based programs are shown to provide better outcomes and cost less without compromising public safety.

In fact, the report found that "imprisoning youth can have severe detrimental effects on youth, the long-term economic productivity and economic health of communities."

Among the recommendations in the report: confine only those who have committed serious offenses; create non-residential alternatives that focus on reducing truancy, expanding vocational training and providing counseling for drug abuse and mental health services; improve state funding and re-allocate current allocations to community-based facilities rather than state confinement; and reduce the size of juvenile correctional facilities, with a goal of no more than 50 at any facility.

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