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States Tackle Juvenile Justice Reform

On June 18th, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced a joint effort to review the state’s juvenile justice system. One of several leaders involved in the announcement, Tomblin signed the agreement which will allow the Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew) to come in and review their current system and outline what needs to be done to improve it. The agreement establishes the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare. In this move, West Virginia is following the example of other states who took a good look at what is and isn’t working in their system, most recently Georgia.

Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians

After a similar review in 2012 by Pew, Annie E. Casey Foundation and Crime & Justice Institute, Georgia juvenile justice professionals gained incredible insight into their current system which included $300 million appropriated for Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) with nearly two-thirds paying for out-of-home facilities. These facilities were both secure and non-secure and include the Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDC) and Youth Development Campus’ (YDC). The cost was equal to around $90,000 per bed per year. The review showed that although the program was high cost, the results were poor with a 50% recidivism rate for youth adjudicated to RYDC and 65% for those sent to YDC. This number continued to hold steady since 2003. Something was definitely not working. 

Wrong Kids. Wrong Places.

Although many issues were discovered, the main problem was low-level, low-risk juveniles were being sent to out-of-home facilities because judges had no choice due to limited or no community-based programs being available. In combination with this, the instruments that should be being used to assess risk were non-validated and used inconsistently if at all. As a result of the review, Georgia HB 242 was written and signed into law on May 2, 2013. HB 242 incorporates some changes that make a huge difference in the experience and outcomes for juveniles in Georgia.

HB 242

Supporters of the unanimously passed bill state the changes will save an estimated $85 million over 5 years, including elimination of the need to build 2 new residential facilities. It will also reduce recidivism and streamline state code related to juvenile justice and child welfare creating new processes for cases involving multi-system youth. These benefits will be recognized by focusing on using out-of-home facilities for serious offenders and investing in evidence-based programs. The recommendations of the review included focusing state facilities on high-level offenders, investing in evidence-based programs and practices thereby reducing recidivism and requiring data-collection and performance-based contracting improving government performance. These recommendations assisted in HB 242’s three priorities.

Three Priorities

Focus out-of-home facilities on higher-level offenders

Under the old system, Georgia youth would often be sent to out-of-home facilities regardless of the level of their offense and their risk to the community. Often this was due to the inaccurate or non-existent assessments or lack of community-based options. By addressing both of these issues, judges will have the information and resources they need to make an informed decision on the best placement for a youth, as well as, the most cost effective, high-return option for the community. HB 242 targeted this priority in three ways:

  • Create a two-class system within the Designated Felony Act-not all coded felonies are severe with a high risk level.  This change allows for judicial discretion on placement
  • Prohibit residential commitment for all status offenders and certain misdemeanants-Not placing status offenders in an out-of-home placement and looking at alternatives for juveniles with less than 4 misdemeanors makes a lot of sense
  • Establish a voluntary fiscal incentive grant program-the appropriated $5 million in fiscal 2014 that Georgia allocated to the Juvenile Reinvestment Grant Program will help establish community evidence-based programs in local communities

Reduce Recidivism

Reducing the rate of returns is the basis for most disciplinary programs, especially corrections. Utilizing programs that reduce recidivism improves “public safety returns on taxpayer investments.” Most juvenile justice policies focus on the rehabilitative nature of youth making the reduction even more in line with agency goals. HB 242 targets this priority in three ways:

  • Ensure that resources are focused on programs proven to reduce recidivism-again, evidence-based programs exist and need to be incorporated into a continuum of services
  • Require the use of assessment instruments to better inform decision-making-develop appropriate assessment tools and using them is key to helping judges make the right choice for placement on an individual level
  • Focus resources on high-risk offenders by allowing lower-risk offenders to be placed on administrative caseloads-put the money and the people where the need exists is the basis for this priority. Low-risk, low-level offenders can be handled utilizing less resources with a higher return

Improve Government Performance

Finally, the last priority is the most exciting as it takes a good look at what is and what is not working within the system itself. Having a successful overhauling of our system requires we look critically within and this addition to HB 242 does just that, again, in three ways:

  • Require performance-based contracting-no longer will the state just give contracts to anyone who appears to have the right idea. Future contracts with DJJ must include incentives, penalties, or both to ensure desired results
  • Require uniform data collection and tracking-assessing whether the changes are working, local jurisdictions must collect and report a variety of data to ensure continual quality improvement
  • Require agencies requesting transportation of a juvenile to a secure facility to pay for that transport-what was once an easy decision to just take a child to a secure facility will now have a financial bite for the referring agency. This type of incentive/decision historically has made people think twice about their choices

Although it’s early in the changes for Georgia, juvenile justice professionals are excited about the ability to start truly making a difference in the lives of children. Now with West Virginia on board to review and make internal changes, it won’t be long before more states see improvements to the budget and lives of youth and follow suit. Governor Tomblin’s words to the press after making the announcement about the collaboration perfectly highlights the intent behind these reforms and what lies in the heart of so many juvenile justice practitioners, “As we continue to put emphasis on reforming West Virginia’s justice system, we must also move toward a more effective approach for juveniles-one that embraces community-based treatment and tells our children we care about them and their future.” Now that’s exciting reform.