Juvenile Justice

An officer stood guard as Gov. Ralph Northam visited the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in 2018.

Kids make mistakes. They always have and probably always will. But when given the chance, kids also can learn from those mistakes, gain maturity and become responsible members of our society.

What happens, though, if they don’t get that chance? If they are instead treated like lost causes?

Two numbers offer us a profound answer: 1,077 and 341.

In the mid-1990s, Virginia lawmakers feared the rise of “juvenile superpredators” and responded by passing laws that made it easier to place juveniles in juvenile correctional centers. The result? More juveniles served time in correctional centers — many more. In fact, the number of juveniles in Virginia juvenile correctional centers stood at more than 1,000 just 15 years ago.

Today, the average daily population of juveniles in the last remaining correctional center is just 341 — a two-thirds reduction — thanks to four thoughtful and largely unsung actions.

The story begins in 2002, when the American Bar Association issued a scathing assessment of Virginia’s juvenile court system. It criticized Virginia’s practice of placing juveniles in a detention center without the benefit of counsel, and it shined a light on the high incidence of juveniles waiving their right to an attorney.

In response, then-Del. Allen Dudley, R-Franklin, authored House Bill 600, requiring the appointment of an attorney for a child prior to his or her initial detention hearing unless one already had been retained. The legislation also required that a child could not waive his or her right to an attorney without consulting with one. Not only did it make much-needed corrections, but HB 600 also led many other states to examine making similar changes.

Soon after, then-Del. Robert McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach, introduced HB 1146, which placed a 45-day cap on the time frame for hearing an appeal of a juvenile’s delinquency case when the juvenile was being incarcerated pending the outcome. Previously, children often were held in detention for more than 70 days while their cases were on appeal. The effect of HB 1146 was to cut that time by almost half.

Next up was HB 1062, presented by then-Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry, which expanded the ability of intake officers to craft informal diversion plans designed to steer a child away from the juvenile court. Under such plans, a juvenile’s case is dismissed if the juvenile successfully completes the diversion plan within 90 days. The problem, however, was that intake officers could only do so once per child. HB 1062 gave them additional opportunities, thereby creating a path to reform for the child and providing much-needed relief for courts.

Finally, the General Assembly took up HB 1355, sponsored by then-Del. Phillip Hamilton, R-Newport News, which adapted the “Three Strikes, You’re Out” language for juveniles. Before this measure, a child could be committed to a juvenile correctional center on a misdemeanor offense if there was a prior misdemeanor. With HB 1355, only those juveniles with a significant misdemeanor history would be committed to state custody, enabling all others to have access to alternative means of correction and reform.

The cumulative effect of the bills became part of a remarkable decline in juvenile crime and incarceration.

But their success isn’t merely quantified in numbers 1,077 and 341. It’s measured in the many troubled youths who received counseling, rather than time in a correctional facility. These children were shown the path to a better life, rather than starting down a lifetime of crime. They have been able to rejoin their families and our society, rather than abandon hope.

The success story of the past 15 years has been a quiet one. It was accompanied by little fanfare and is barely mentioned in the news.

But it’s one worth celebrating, across the commonwealth and in the many homes that are now whole thanks to the wisdom of the action that made it possible.

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Deron Phipps is a former Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice official. He served for more than 20 years and was in charge of legislative, regulatory and certification units. Contact him at dmphipps96@gmail.com.

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