Safety, belonging and opportunities to thrive are key qualities that attract people to communities. As Virginia reflects on the second anniversary of the closure of the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Powhatan County, we must reassert the call for community over incarceration.
Since the Beaumont closure, Virginians have soundly rejected new youth prison proposals in both Chesapeake and Isle of Wight County. The state’s next move should be deeper investment in community-based alternatives and ending the reliance on incarceration.
If public safety is truly our goal, we must resource the very communities hardest hit by violence and crime. Research shows that locking young people up as a first response does more harm than good and can increase a youth’s risk of engaging in crime. By contrast, local interventions are more likely to get a youth back on track and improve community safety. States around the country are beginning to embrace this approach and are moving to provide a full range of community services to help young people succeed.
Virginia already made great strides toward improving the youth justice system by shuttering large, outdated, ineffective youth prisons. Far fewer youth are getting locked up and the Department of Juvenile Justice recognizes the value of therapeutic, rather than punitive, interventions.
It’s time to continue this trajectory by investing in community supports, from mental health services to job programs to mentorship, that keep vulnerable youth where they belong — at home in their communities. Through targeted investments, we can create the community-based support that keeps young people out of trouble in the first place and effectively helps those who make mistakes. The other route — punishment and prison — is too familiar to young Virginians, especially youth of color, and produces dismal outcomes.
It costs more than $187,000 a year to incarcerate a single youth in Virginia — 10 times more than annual in-state tuition at the University of Virginia. Even more importantly, youth prisons don’t work: almost half of youth are rearrested a year after release, and 3 in 4 are rearrested within three years. Locking up high-risk youth instead of investing in proven alternatives does nothing to better our society. It is the state’s version of kicking the can down the road, and it further damages vulnerable youth in the process.
If we want our young people to become productive members of their community, we need to invest in them. Giving up on justice-involved youth will do nothing to make us safer. There are examples to help us achieve this vision, including the Credible Messenger Initiative model, which engages formerly system-involved people as examples of hope and redemption in their communities.
In New York City, the Arches Transformative Mentoring Program employs credible messengers to support high-risk 16- to 24-year-olds on probation. An evaluation of Arches showed clear results: The program led to a 69% lower felony reconviction rate after 12 months on probation, and a 57% lower rate after 24 months.
As a recent transplant to the DMV region, these issues are personal to me. I previously served as the head of the state agency in Illinois that oversees youth prisons. During my tenure, we closed a youth prison and ensured that financial savings from the closure were directed to community supports, rather than new prisons. Young people are truly rehabilitated when we address the root causes of behavior and involve the entire family in the solution. Additionally, expanding the range of services and ways that communities can support young people promotes healing and prevents future crime.
We expect our leaders to make informed, cost-effective choices. If the opposite happens, public trust in our system of governance declines. Incarceration is not a smart investment. Prison makes it difficult for young people to find a job, build positive relationships, and become productive adults. Thankfully, there are alternatives — from therapy, leadership development, restorative justice and housing programs — that already exist and are far cheaper and more effective.
Together, we can support a better way forward for youth justice by investing in the very communities that have been most impacted by generations of racial inequity and championing trauma-informed responses to young people who encounter the juvenile justice system. Without that, we risk solidifying the status quo for another generation and missing this opportunity to create pathways for youth success.