By Nadia Ramlagan for WVNS
A wealth of research shows youth incarceration doesn’t increase public safety or work for youth well-being, according to a recent report from the Sentencing Project.
Despite the evidence, West Virginia has been slow to implement juvenile-justice reforms and reduce the number of kids behind bars.
In recent years, West Virginia had the highest rate of incarcerated youths in the nation – with 329 youths in state custody in 2017.
Senior Fellow at the Sentencing Project and report author Richard Mendel said effective alternatives to incarceration are catching on in some states.
He pointed to Credible Messengers, a program that provides intensive mentoring to youths at high risk of offending.
“The mentors work intensively with young people,” said Mendel. “They’re typically available 24/7, providing support and encouragement and crisis intervention for the young people.”
According to state data, out of more than 300 probation officers in West Virginia, 20 work in county school systems.
Recently, the state’s juvenile-justice subcommittee recommended more than $300,000 in funding toward community-based programs and services for juveniles and their families.
Mendel said alternatives to traditional court processing include restorative justice conferencing, which focuses on repairing the harm caused by an offense.
During conferencing, the crime victim and the young person meet along with important people in their lives, discuss the harm caused by the events, and craft a plan for the youths to make it right to pay back the victim.
“To date, most restorative-justice programs have focused on minor offenses,” said Mendel. “But some jurisdictions have started employing restorative justice as an alternative to court processing for youth.”
Nearly a decade ago, West Virginia passed a statute eliminating life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, and requiring juvenile offenders be eligible for parole after serving no more than 15 years.