Keeping Youths Out of Trouble

Overcrowding has reached near-crisis levels at many West Virginia regional jails and prisons. At the same time, serious questions have been raised about whether effective rehabilitation is being practiced at the state’s juvenile detention center in Salem.

One strikingly obvious way to deal with both problems is to do more to keep people from going into the corrections system.

Here in the Northern Panhandle, we have been blessed for many years with an effective, if limited, approach to doing just that. It is the short-term youth rehabilitation system operated by Youth Services Systems Inc. in Wheeling.

This week the agency hosted a reception for community leaders at its Northern Regional Juvenile Center. Among those present was state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. “You all deserve a chance, and my job is to make sure there is a commitment from the state to give you that chance,” he told residents of the center.

Youths at the center are not petty criminals. The facility houses juveniles convicted of felonies, but it seems to have a good success rate in steering them away from continued lives of crime.

Sometimes that requires more than one “term” at the center, YSS Executive Director John Moses noted. Still, the center seems to do well in rehabilitating many of those sent there by the courts.

The local center is small, with a capacity of just 19 young offenders. This week it was nearly full, with 18 residents.

Kessler is right. State officials should be taking a close look at YSS and similar services elsewhere in West Virginia. Evaluations of effectiveness and the potential for such treatment to stem the flood of convicts into adult jails and prisons should be conducted. It may be that the YSS approach, if expanded, could be part of the answer to reducing overcrowding in jails and prisons – and, more important, serving many young people and society as a whole by forestalling lives of crime.