Rehabilitating Young Offenders

Coddling hardened criminals is never a good idea. There is a vast difference between doing that and attempting to rehabilitate youthful offenders who, in many cases, have not had time to become habitual wrongdoers, however.

State officials have agreed to make changes in how youthful offenders are handled at West Virginia’s Industrial Home for Youth in Salem. It has been apparent for years new policies were needed there, but the state’s plan came about only after two Salem inmates filed a lawsuit alleging they were being treated unnecessarily harshly.

This week the state agreed to settle part of the lawsuit, after a consultant hired by the plaintiffs issued a report summing up conditions at Salem as “overly brutal.” Juvenile corrections expert Peter DeMuro said the center does not comply with “widely accepted juvenile justice institutional practices and standards.”

DeMuro reported staff at Salem isolate some juvenile offenders from other inmates too frequently, don’t allow youths at the facility to talk during meals, employ random strip searches without any reason to believe inmates are carrying contraband, and use other policies that tend, if anything, to make rehabilitation less likely.

Some of the harshest policies at Salem will change as a result of DeMuro’s report and the lawsuit, state Division of Juvenile Services officials said.

They should, and the sooner the better.

It needs to be kept in mind some of the older criminals kept in juvenile corrections facilities indeed are hardened, dangerous offenders. There is no more hope of changing them than of rehabilitating many of the older men who are in state jails and prisons because of patterns of anti-social behavior.

But treating all juvenile offenders as if they fall into that category is simply ridiculous and short-sighted. Where there are real possibilities to change the destructive paths down which some juvenile offenders have started, they should be seized eagerly – not thrown away to the detriment of both the young people and society as a whole.