On one wall inside the ART 180 studio, hand-drawn signs called for unity, fairness over prejudice, and education not incarceration.
The artwork was part of the Performing Statistics exhibit, a project that connects incarcerated teens with artists, designers, educators and advocates to change the juvenile justice system. It also provided the backdrop for a town hall held Thursday night to discuss ways to better the system.
Attended by Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice director Andrew Block, the town hall was divided into four talking points: prevention, alternatives to youth incarceration, family and community engagement, and providing re-entry resources to youth.
Sitting on a platform intended to mimic the look of a cell, Block said the DJJ has focused more on investing in early prevention efforts.
Richmond youth who end up “in the deep end of our system” at the Bon Air or Beaumont juvenile correctional centers often follow a familiar trajectory, he said. They are, on average, 3½ years behind in school due to discipline or truancy issues, face mental health problems, and have familial histories of incarceration, addiction or violence.
As the population of people in the correctional system shrinks, Block said, the department is trying to use money it saves and direct it toward mental health, family and community services.
“Part of what we are trying to do is hold onto our savings and have the opportunity to reinvest them in things that would work better and work earlier so that kids don’t have to get to that point,” he said. “Another piece of prevention that I think is important is recognizing that the juvenile justice system is a sticky system and once you get into it, it’s hard to get out of it.”
Several audience members chimed in throughout the town hall, both lobbing questions at Block and joining in the conversation.
Iman Shabazz, who works in criminal justice reform, said that although it is important to recognize the need for prevention and early intervention, so too is addressing the systemic issues that undergird the criminal justice system. Reinvestment, he said, should mean more than putting “some dollars behind certain programs.”
“We’re talking about really being able to, at the root level, be able to provide the right opportunities and meet those needs in specific neighborhoods that are most prone to the unfortunate realities that lead to us being pulled into these systems in the first place,” he said. “That has to be done but that can only be successful if those who are in the positions to do so are taking a serious look at the system and asking honest questions that really dig at the core.”
Directing his question to the youth in the audience, Block asked what are the needs of youth who are returning home from juvenile correction centers.
Elle Cosby, 17 and a senior at John Marshall High School, said more opportunities and programs need to be available to youth to keep them from trouble.
“If we don’t have that opportunity in our school .... then (they’re doing) other things to take up their time.”