Juvenile Justice Reform Shows Progress in Virginia

Nov 8, 2018

It often takes years for government agencies to make big changes in social programs, but Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice reports a major turnaround in just four years.  The improvements have been made without additional state spending.

When Andy Block took the top job at Virginia’s correctional system for kids, he was alarmed by the numbers. The state was spending $150,000 per resident to keep 600 juveniles at Bon Air and Beaumont Correctional Centers near Richmond.

“Staffing a facility that big is expensive,” he explains. “Maintaining infrastructure in a facility that big is expensive.” 

And, as it turned out, not very effective.  Far from their families, locked up with other troubled kids, 80% of youngsters who were released ended up back in the criminal justice system within three years.  So Block and his team decided on a different approach, with shorter sentences in smaller facilities closer to home.

“We are creating more alternative programs so they don’t just have to come to state care,” he says. “We revamped our length of stay guidelines that apply to some of the young people who are in our custody.”

That allowed them to close Beaumont, and – with the savings – create a statewide network of community-based programs where kids who got in trouble with the law could be treated. It also left more money for intensive therapy and education of the 200 kids remaining at Bon Air.

“Our SOL test scores are going up. Our graduation rates are going up. We have the 200 hardest kids in Virginia in Bon Air, and if we don’t do what we have to to rehabilitate them, it will be bad for them and for everybody else,” says Block

This year, 40 students got high school diplomas, and some are now taking college level courses.  There are fewer violent incidents, and the number of kids being arrested after release or while on probation is down more than 20%.