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Editorial: Latest juvenile-facility closure adds urgency to reform efforts

Jul. 11, 2013 @ 11:52 PM

Troubles at West Virginia facilities for juvenile offenders continue to mount, underscoring that state officials have a lot of sorting out to do toward improving conditions at its juvenile centers.

The shortcomings first came to a head early this year after offenders at what was then the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, the only maximum-security facility for youths in the state, filed lawsuits. The judge overseeing the case, Mercer County Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn, harshly criticized the workings of that facility, saying too much emphasis was placed on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin then in March ordered the Industrial Home be closed by July 1 and converted to an adult facility. The juvenile offenders were to be moved to other state facilities.

The governor also said then that the state would work to move another building on the Salem campus, the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, which is used to house juvenile sex offenders and juveniles with mental and behavioral issues. When word of that came out, many staff members at the Jones center quit, leading to staff shortages. And that has led to poorer conditions at the Jones Center.

As a result, Aboulhosn this week ordered that the state must relocate the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center or its residents by Sept. 30.

At a hearing prior to the judge's order, a current guard, a former guard and an offender being held at Jones all cited times the facility was not safe due to a lack of staff, according to media reports. They also said that offenders were at times locked in their cells for long periods during the day, were not allowed to talk with one another and were denied phone calls. During testimony regarding an alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old by a 20-year-old, the judge said he was shocked to learn that the facility kept adult and youth sex offenders in the same units.

Problems with the state's juvenile justice system aren't confined to the two Salem facilities. A report issued in March by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University described the state's juvenile incarceration program as ineffective. It spelled out that West Virginia's incarceration rate of youth had increased by 60 percent from 1997 to 2010, while the rates in most neighboring states had decreased significantly. The researchers recommended that the state should opt for more community-based rehabilitation programs for non-violent offenders -- an approach that other states have adopted. The results in those states have shown lower recidivism rates and more educational success among the young offenders.

State officials say they are working to revamp West Virginia's juvenile justice system to focus more on rehabilitation. That's a good step if they pursue the changes diligently. The first priority, however, is to ensure that the juveniles they incarcerate will be placed in safer facilities. As the problems at the centers at Salem have shown, those changes can't come soon enough.

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