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DJJ making unprecedented community investments

Editor, Times-Dispatch:

In her July 10 op-ed column, Candice Jones calls on Virginia to invest in communities not prisons when it comes to juvenile justice. As the former director of the Department of Juvenile Justice from April 2014 to April 2019, I would like to respond.

Had Jones done her homework, she would know that the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has been reinvesting in communities and alternatives to incarceration since it first received General Assembly authorization in 2016 to reinvest savings from facility downsizing into community services and supports.

In fact, with the goal of geographic service parity, DJJ has opened up new evidence-based family therapy services in more than 100 jurisdictions across the state, expanded the availability of supported employment programs, contracted for a range of residential alternatives to secure confinement, and continues to add new services and supports, including mentoring.

With the combination of these investments, and a new focus on front-end services, DJJ has seen all-time lows in the numbers of new cases, youth on probation, youth in local detention, and an almost two-thirds decline in the number of youth in state facilities.

The sad truth, however, is that despite all of this progress, a small number of young people, because of their offenses and state laws, will likely always require confinement. The question is where.

The new, smaller facilities which DJJ has proposed would allow the closure of its last facility at Bon Air (an old, oversized and adult-like facility with a capacity of 270 beds), and permanently reduce the capacity of state beds to about 150.

The new facilities, while secure, would more closely resemble small community college campuses than prisons and have designs and programs responsive to the trauma experienced by so many youth served by DJJ.

Most significantly, the new facilities, with their reduced operating costs and the accompanying closure of Bon Air, would allow DJJ to invest even more into those community programs that Jones, and DJJ, correctly prioritize.

Andrew Block.

Richmond.

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