Data Tells How Virginia's Youth Justice System is Headed Toward a Better Future

Posted February 7, 2019
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young person at graduation ceremony being congratulated by a man

Photo by Greg Davy from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice for the Casey Foundation

A grow­ing num­ber of states are mov­ing their juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems away from the youth prison mod­el and toward a con­tin­u­um of com­mu­ni­ty-based programs.

One such state — Vir­ginia — has suc­cess­ful­ly cut its juve­nile cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ty pop­u­la­tion in half after just five years, accord­ing to a new report issued by the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Juve­nile Jus­tice (DJJ).

The state’s five-pronged reform strat­e­gy, which the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion has sup­port­ed with tech­ni­cal exper­tise, has real­ized some clear gains. These include:

Reduc­ing state facil­i­ty pop­u­la­tions: The aver­age dai­ly pop­u­la­tion in Virginia’s juve­nile cor­rec­tion­al cen­ters has dropped 54% over three years (going from 466 youth in 2015 to 216 youth in 2018). Youth in Vir­ginia were being held in con­fine­ment for rel­a­tive­ly long lengths of stay com­pared to youth con­fined in oth­er states, accord­ing to a Casey Foun­da­tion analy­sis. As a result, DJJ adopt­ed new length-of-stay guide­lines, which sharply reduced the dura­tion of con­fine­ment in most cas­es and short­ened the aver­age length of stay from 14 months to just 8 months.

Rein­vest­ing in bet­ter alter­na­tives: Instead of incar­cer­at­ing youth in insti­tu­tions, DJJ cre­at­ed alter­na­tives, includ­ing short­er-stay res­i­den­tial cen­ters and a con­tin­u­um of non­res­i­den­tial pro­grams and ser­vices across the state. Vir­ginia is fund­ing these new options with cost sav­ings recov­ered from the clos­ing of a 258-bed cor­rec­tion­al cen­ter and a 40-bed recep­tion and diag­nos­tic cen­ter. Thanks, in part, to these moves, near­ly half of youth released from state cus­tody in 2018 nev­er spent time in a state cor­rec­tion­al facility.

Reform­ing cor­rec­tion­al treat­ment: Work­ing with experts, includ­ing the Mis­souri Youth Ser­vices Insti­tute, Vir­ginia revamped its approach to youth who remained in cor­rec­tion­al cus­tody. The pos­i­tive out­comes that fol­lowed include:

  • A dra­mat­ic drop in the use of iso­la­tion and restraints. Since 2015, the num­ber of inci­dents result­ing in iso­la­tion has fall­en by 88%. At the same time, the num­ber of inci­dents result­ing in more than two days of iso­la­tion fell by about 99% (from 522 to just 7 incidents).
  • Improved safe­ty. DJJ work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion claims have dropped 58% in the past three years. In addi­tion, the num­ber of report­ed inci­dents (fights, assaults, staff use of force) fell by 25% at the 284-bed Bön Air Juve­nile Cor­rec­tion­al Cen­ter just one year after the state adopt­ed its new treat­ment mod­el across the facility.
  • Bet­ter edu­ca­tion out­comes. Work­ing with con­sul­tants, DJJ moved to upgrade its edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams, includ­ing its col­lege, career, tech­ni­cal and spe­cial edu­ca­tion offer­ings. As a result, the share of indi­vid­u­als pass­ing exams, grad­u­at­ing high school or earn­ing a GED has risen sharply over the last two years.
  • Stronger fam­i­ly con­nec­tions. In 2018, youth in state cus­tody received near­ly 6,000 fam­i­ly vis­its — a 90% increase over the pri­or year.

Replac­ing obso­lete facil­i­ties: When the Foun­da­tion began work­ing with Vir­ginia in 2014, both of the state’s large insti­tu­tions had more than 200 beds and resem­bled adult pris­ons. While efforts to replace these facil­i­ties have encoun­tered some resis­tance, Virginia’s state leg­is­la­ture approved fund­ing in ear­ly 2018 for a new 60-bed facility.

Sus­tain­ing progress: Due to work cul­ture improve­ments and expe­dit­ed hir­ing process­es, the pro­por­tion of unfilled staff posi­tions at DJJ fell from 24% in 2016 to just 11% in 2018.

Today, the DJJ’s trans­for­ma­tion con­tin­ues. The department’s long-term expec­ta­tion of a decrease in recidi­vism rates has not yet been achieved,” accord­ing to the report, which notes that addi­tion­al time is nec­es­sary for its changes to become per­ma­nent fix­tures of Virginia’s juve­nile jus­tice system.”

Casey Senior Asso­ciate Tom Woods, who is lead­ing the engage­ment with Vir­ginia, offers his per­spec­tive: We have seen the changes up close and — from our van­tage point — thanks to bipar­ti­san sup­port in the leg­is­la­ture and from two gov­er­nors, strong lead­er­ship through­out DJJ, and remark­able ded­i­ca­tion from front line staff, Vir­gini­a’s youth jus­tice sys­tem is head­ed toward a bet­ter future.”

Read about momen­tum build­ing in states across the coun­try to end the youth prison model

Read more about Virginia’s juve­nile jus­tice transformation

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