Most West Virginians probably believe getting tough on criminals is a good strategy. But they also understand the fine line between deterrence and failure to rehabilitate juvenile offenders.
Earlier this week the state Supreme Court appointed a monitor to look into the juvenile justice system, with special emphasis on how youthful offenders are punished.
Later in the week it was revealed two inmates at the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem are suing the state. They contend juvenile offenders are subjected to a "regimen of dehumanization and isolation" at Salem.
This is not the first time questions about conditions at the Salem facility have been raised. A few years ago, a 19-year-old inmate died. Then there were allegations of sexual assaults and attacks on guards.
Last year the state Supreme Court, concerned about the situation at Salem, appointed a commission to look into the facility. The action this week in naming a special monitor to investigate the entire juvenile justice system appears to be a follow-up.
"As a general thesis, the problem has to do with the approach that has been used by the Division of Juvenile Services," commented Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury. "It appears that it's more interested in the punishment/warehousing of the juvenile offenders than in focusing on rehabilitation," he added.
If allegations in the inmates' lawsuit are accurate, it is clear changes need to be made.
Among claims in the lawsuit are that young inmates are locked away in solitary confinement and denied adequate access to educational materials. Another allegation is that bathroom privileges are restricted to the point some male inmates develop urinary tract infections.
Just before the lawsuit was filed, state Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys ordered an end to solitary confinement for juveniles. In doing so, he added he was concerned about the safety of the general population at Salem, because some offenders there are violent.
That comment illustrates the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile corrections. Of course non-violent offenders should be protected against those who may do them harm.
But the high court is right to be focusing its attention on Salem. If harsh punishment methods are being used unnecessarily, they may harden some youthful offenders rather than rehabilitate them.
Within a reasonable amount of time, the court-appointed monitor should produce a report on Salem and other aspects of the juvenile justice system in West Virginia. Then, if necessary, both the high court and the state Legislature should make adjustments to ensure that while juvenile offenders are punished appropriately, they are not subjected to abuses that could help turn them into hardened, violent career criminals.