WV Jailing More Juveniles, but Lawmakers Working to Change That

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. – While the national rates of youth incarceration have fallen for years, West Virginia’s has actually risen. The good news is, lawmakers seem to want to fix some of the root causes.

According to a new report from the Annie E. Casey foundation, the percentage of West Virginia’s young people who have been locked up has risen by 60 percent in the last decade and a half – at a time when the national rate has fallen. Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia Kids Count, says we’re locking up a lot of young people who are not a threat.

“What they’ve done is not violent crime,” she said. “They’re technical violations of probation, low-level property offenses, public order offenses. They’re not dangerous, they’re not gonna shoot somebody.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin favors more funding for child care and early childhood education, and has said he wants to change how the state deals with some non-violent crime. Hale said she is encouraged by many of the current proposals.

Cutting truancy is one of the best ways to reduce youth incarceration, Hale said, and is something lawmakers say they want to address during the current legislative session. And she said a previous state program, which ended for lack of funding, did a lot of good.

“It was enormously successful,” she said. “We know what to do. It’s a question of hiring people to go out there and talk to kids.”

Hale also pointed to signs the state is reforming the juvenile justice system, which had been strongly focused on maintaining law and order. The West Virginia Industrial Home for Youth in Salem may be permanently closed, after a lawsuit revealed that solitary confinement was regularly used there in spite of being illegal. And this week the governor’s office announced that the director of juvenile services has been replaced.

Hale also highlighted increasing support for child care and early education. Critics have questioned whether the state can afford it, but she said the governor’s office seems to understand that investments there pay off.

“If these kids had a good early childhood experience, the odds are they would not be confined,” she said. “For every dollar we spend for early childhood we get seven back, and one of the reasons is that that kid is not confined.”

The report, “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States,” is available at www.aecf.org.

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