A New Approach to Juvenile Justice

Feb 6, 2018

Credit mitchell hainfield / Flickr

Virginia is making some big changes in the way it handles kids who commit crimes.

When Andy Block was picked to run Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice in 2014, he was concerned.  The state had cut spending on these troubled kids.

“We lost almost 300 positions during the recession," he recalls.  "By the time I got there a lot of the services that we did have in the past or should have had had been eliminated.”

And much of the money was going to a small number of children locked up in two youth prisons near Richmond.

“Our facilities were all old and big, all over 200 beds, and ate up a lot of our resources,” he says. 

The state was spending $150,000 per inmate per year.  Many residents between the ages of 12 and 17 had experienced trauma.  They had medical problems and learning disabilities, yet the places Virginia was sending them were not suited to therapy.

“They’re big campuses, and there was no treatment space on the unit, no natural light.  They’re hard, sterile places,” Block explains. 

And, in the end, few of the kids were rehabilitated.

“Close to 80% of them were getting re-arrested within three years of getting released.”

So Block and his team began looking at how other states dealt with juvenile delinquents.  Most had smaller rehab centers and community-based programs like multi-systemic therapy or MST.  Its goal is to empower parents, teach children and help both to find support close to home.

“It’s about skill-building for everybody in the home,” says Valerie Boykin,  Deputy Director of the department.   

“Coping skills, being able to prioritize, knowing when to engage in a conversation and how to be assertive in conversations," says and Cara Brooks, Project Director for Evidence Based Associates – a firm that works with states to improve public safety and nurture parenting skills.  "We teach families how to take time outs – how to ask for help.”

We hope to get more of them on the front end, before they are actually removed from the home. That's the ultimate goal.

“Most communities have non-profits that provide services for kids and families, and so one of the hopes is that these programs will help navigate those,” Boykin adds.

This approach was tested in Richmond and Henrico and has now  expanded to ten other regions statewide.

“We’re actually targeting young people who are at risk of being removed from their homes or are returning home from a period of incarceration or a special placement. We hope to get more of them on the front end, before they are actually removed from the home.  That’s the ultimate goal,” she says.

Rather than build expensive administrative offices, Cara Brooks explains that caseworkers are mobile. 

“If you’re going to visit your mom or your aunt in the hospital, and you don’t have time, the MST therapist will meet you in the waiting room. It’s not tied to an office. It’s not tied to a physical location.  They will come to you.”

So parents don’t have to arrange transportation, miss work or hire a babysitter to watch other children. That, Brooks says, makes it easier for families to play a role in rehabilitation and allows youngsters to stay in their homes.

“When a child is removed from the home, whether they’re in a mental health facility or a correctional setting, it’s hard to get that family network back together,” Brooks explains. 

“A lot of kids act out because they don’t know any better,” Boykin adds.

“When you start talking with youth, they don’t want to be in trouble.  They don’t necessarily like the choices they are going down, but they don’t know how to get out of that,” Brooks concludes.

The state is funding this new approach, in part, by closing the expensive Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, and Block hopes to replace the last remaining prison for kids, Bon Air, with two smaller treatment centers.  But as state lawmakers debate a two-year budget, that goal is in jeopardy.  We’ll tell you why in our next report.