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Editorial: Incarceration of juveniles is often not the best approach

Mar. 21, 2013 @ 11:57 PM

The juvenile justice system is a balancing act.

On one hand, there is a need to protect the public from some violent offenders. On the other hand, these are teen-agers, and programs that can effectively rehabilitate troubled kids and put them on a better path pay a big dividend for the teen and the public.

The rise of drug and street violence in the 1980s and 1990s meant many states got tougher on juvenile offenders and put more of youthful offenders behind bars. But the pendulum swung too far in that direction, experts concluded. Juvenile detention costs were on the rise, but the rehabilitation success stories were not.

Growing research also has shed some light on the mental health and developmental issues facing these young offenders, and often incarceration did not help matters. About 65-70 percent of the 2 million youth arrested in the United States each year have some type of mental health disorder, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

So, a new focus on better screening and community-based rehabilitation programs has emerged, and that is certainly the direction that a new study recommends for West Virginia.

The state's incarceration rate for youth offenders rose by 60 percent from 1997 to 2010, according to the study done by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University. But most of those teens were not convicted of violent or major crimes, and the state would be better off investing in more effective alternative programs and prevention efforts, such as early childhood and Pre-K development efforts.

"While a small number of youthful offenders pose a serious threat to the public and must be confined, incarcerating a broader swath of juvenile offender population provides no benefit for public safety," the Marshall study said. "It wastes vast sums of taxpayer dollars. And more often than not, it harms the well-being and dampens the future prospects of troubled and law breaking youth who get locked up."

West Virginia is taking an important first step by closing the West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, the state's maximum-security juvenile prison, with the 49 inmates assigned to other facilities. A judge already had criticized the conditions at Salem, which mixed offenders from age 12 to 20.

Salem will be converted to an adult prison and help relieve some of the overcrowding problems the state faces. As the Marshall study recommends, the state could do that with other youth facilities as other programs come online.

When children and teens are convicted of crimes, both the offender and the state come to an important crossroads. The wrong response can reinforce a life of crime that the public pays for in many ways. The state needs to pursue the most effective rehabilitation effort it can develop.

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