Virginia Could Build Two New Prisons for Kids

Jan 11, 2016

Credit VA Dept. of Juvenile Justice

On any given day, the state of Virginia is dealing with about 5,000 kids who’ve broken the law.  Some are on probation or parole.  Others are in community programs, but about 400 are locked up.  Eighty percent of them end up committing new crimes within three years of being released.  Now, lawmakers in Richmond will debate reforming the juvenile justice system by building two new detention centers.

The 1938 film Boys Town showed how even in a large reformatory, troubled kids could be saved, but 21st century experts say kids who’ve committed crimes do better in small groups, getting specialized attention.  Andrew Block is director of Juvenile Justice in Virginia.

“One size fits all doesn’t work when the kids that we have coming into the system are not one size.  You know, we have young people in our facilities who are 14, and we have young people in our facilities who are 20.  We have a number with significant mental health issues, with educational challenges, with significant exposure to trauma.”

And running the state’s two juvenile prisons costs about $150,000 per child.

“It’s just expensive to operate facilities where you’re providing healthcare, mental health care, education, security, food, and all the people that need to be there to safely make that work, and number two is we are increasingly paying for unused space and unused overhead, because our populations have declined significantly over the last ten years.”

What’s more, both facilities are near Richmond -- far from many kids’ families.

“We surveyed our residents not long ago, and 40% of them reported almost never or never seeing their families during their confinement, and what lots of data suggests is if you can keep kids closer to home with the right kinds of programs, they’re going to do better.”

So in his two-year budget, the governor has proposed closing the Bon Air and Beaumont Juvenile Detention Centers, then building two smaller facilities, one near Hampton Roads.  That would put 75% of families within an hour of kids in detention.

And, finally, proponents say this approach will save money, allowing the state to invest in more community-based programs and training for those who work with kids in the juvenile justice system.