By Kent Willis, Executive Director

The boat carrying much needed reforms for juvenile justice is sailing right by Virginia policy makers while they tack into politically safe waters.   The boat’s cargo is the Annie E. Casey Foundation report No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, and it argues that we can both save money and juveniles by not incarcerating the latter at such a high rate.
It would be bad enough for Virginia to ignore the Casey report, but the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice is doing the opposite.  At almost the same time as No Place for Kids concludes that the over-incarceration of youth does nothing to improve public safety, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice is recommending to the General Assembly that it increase the number of beds for juvenile offenders.
The Casey report, which is mostly a more refined  and thorough statement of what juvenile justice experts have been saying for years, points out that in addition to being ineffective, the average cost for incarcerating a juvenile offender in a secure facility is $88,000 per year.  Juvenile justice facilities, the report says, also tend to be breeding grounds for scandals and child abuse.
The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice already spends 114 million dollars per year, about half its budget, on secure custody of juvenile offenders.  Now it wants to spend more.
There is a tendency in our government to try to save failed programs by using the loopy logic of throwing more money at them.   We did that with the War on Drugs, which many consider to be the most failed program in American history.  Each year since its inception in 1970, evaluators of the War on Drugs conclude is that it only serves to fuel drug trafficking, drug-related violence, and drug consumption.  Yet, each year the government increases funding for it.
Now, Virginia may be doing something similar with juvenile justice.
Like most things in life, this is not an all or nothing proposition.  It is, instead, a matter of taking the information we have and coming up with the most effective systems for addressing a complex problem.  We owe that to both the juveniles who make mistakes and the taxpayers who fund our attempts to turn them into productive adults.
Here are a few of recommendations from Families & Allies of Virginia’s Youth.
First, incarcerate only those juveniles who have committed the most serious offenses.   Virginia has already experienced a drop in juvenile crime since deciding ten years ago to make it slightly more difficult to incarcerate juvenile offenders.  Based on this and studies such as No Place for Kids, why not make it even more difficult to incarcerate juveniles?
Second, invest in alternatives to incarceration that have proven to be successful.  These include Mulitsystemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy and a host of other alternative programs that are less costly and more effective than incarceration.
Third, rather than increase the large juvenile institutions that are so prone to abuse, replace them with small treatment-oriented facilities.  This will not only increase the chances of rehabilitation, but will enable the state to spread these institutions around so that juveniles who must be incarcerated can be closer to their families (which, studies show, also increase the chances for rehabilitation).
For years, Virginia’s legislators have been at their most hypocritical when addressing criminal justice issues.  They know that high rates of incarceration don’t reduce crime, yet they also know that being “tough on crime” gets them re-elected.  One wonders if this Ship of Fools will ever sail the same course as the Ship of Reason.
To learn more about juvenile justice issues in Virginia go to Families & Allies of Virginia’s Youth and JustChildren.
Note: Much of the information for this blog came from an article in the October 5-11, 2011 edition of the Richmond Voice.