Rehabilitating Youth Offenders
While most states report fewer juveniles are being detained for crimes than in the past, West Virginia is an exception. That makes it all the more important that rehabilitation, not merely incarceration, be occurring.
For several years, that does not seem to have been the case in the state’s most high-profile juvenile detention facility, in Salem. There, true children were thrown in with hardened criminals, some as old as 20 years of age.
After investigations found children were being treated inappropriately – and sometimes brutally – at Salem, state officials announced plans to transfer juveniles out of the facility. That’s a good start. Clearly, however, physical surroundings are not as critical as rehabilitation policies and methods in steering young people away from lives of crime.
A special panel, the Adjudicated Juvenile Rehabilitation Review Commission, was formed in reaction to problems at Salem. It is chaired by state Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman.
Initially, the commission was to focus primarily on juvenile detention centers. But its members are broadening their study to include all juvenile offenders taken from their homes, whether they go to detention centers or other places.
Commission members want to examine many issues, ranging from whether juvenile offenders have adequate legal representation to what support services are available for them.
During the past decade or so, most states have reported declining rates of incarceration for juvenile offenders. Ours is an exception – West Virginia has experienced the second-worst increase in the nation.
At any given time, the detention rate here is more than 300 per 100,000 juveniles in the state.
Workman and her fellow commission members should be considering whether options other than detention would be more productive. And, for juveniles who must be removed from their homes, the very best strategies to rehabilitate them must be found and employed. Otherwise, many of the juvenile offenders will “graduate” to become hardened adult criminals.