State lawmakers are debating a budget for the next two years, and people concerned about juvenile justice are keeping a close watch on one line-item – money set aside to build two new, secure treatment centers for delinquent kids. The Department of Juvenile Justice says that’s our best bet for dealing with young criminals, but some advocates for those kids disagree.
As a lawyer who works for kids in the justice system, Valerie Slater is convinced that prisons for young people are a mistake. It’s far better, she says, to keep youngsters at home, or close to home, so families can be part of a child’s recovery.
“Our young people can be rehabilitated. Why would we not invest in making sure that that rehabilitation happens close to home so that if support is needed for the family, so that they know how to be a good support system for that youth?," she wonders.
But the state’s secretary of public safety, Brian Moran, says Virginia needs at least one youth prison for especially violent kids. “Whether a murder or a rape or a robbery is committed by a 16-year-old or a 60-year-old it’s a heinous offense and the public demands punishment in many cases,” he explains.
So he helped plan a sixty-bed prison for youngsters in Chesapeake. “A little over half of our residents are from the Hampton Roads region, so putting that facility back in the Hampton Roads region made a lot of sense," Moran says. "We’re having the best national design, borrowing best practices from other states – what creates a better therapeutic setting for education, mental health counseling, for behavior modification.”
Not good enough says Valerie Slater, the juvenile justice advocate with a group called RISE for Youth. She claims 60 beds is too big, and Chesapeake is not the same as Norfolk or Newport News, where most offenders come from.
“Those communities are struggling, and they’re basically saying, ‘We know how to support our own. If we had the resources and if we had the assistance, we could tell you what we need, and if you really help us, we could even provide what our young people need.’ So let’s support them.”
In the end, Chesapeake’s City Council rejected the proposed facility, and the state is now talking about building in Isle of Wight, a 30 minute drive from Newport News and Norfolk. Slater objects, urging the state to instead invest in the low-income areas where so many juvenile offenders live.
“Pour the money into the communities that need it and not into the middle of nowhere,” she says. “When you pour that level of resource into a community, that level of resource that is supportive and treatment-minded, and you’re bringing in also all of the economic support that comes along with all of those services, that really provides an opportunity to transform the entire community.”
But Andy Block, who heads the Department of Juvenile Justice, says that’s easier said than done. He thinks neighborhoods in Norfolk and Newport News are likely to object to the idea of a juvenile prison in their midst, and building smaller facilities in different communities would be more expensive.
“We looked at the cost of building four 40-bed facilities, and the construction costs are about $20 million more than the combined cost of what we’re talking now, and the operating costs, because you lose economies of scale, are even greater,” he explains.
It would be nice, of course, for inmates to be close to their families, but Block says Isle of Wight is close enough, especially since the department provides transportation for parents who want to visit. “Each year more than a thousand people take advantage of that. We’ve been having these big family events, and we have hundreds of parents show up to participate.”
But with RISE for Youth raising objections, he hears some lawmakers are getting cold feet – talking about building a single new youth prison at Beaumont, in central Virginia, near one of the old, shuttered facilities. The General Assembly is expected to decide the matter by mid-February.