Gov. Ralph Northam made his first visit to the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center on Wednesday, 2/7/2018. The governor spent his morning listening to the stories of some of the 200 youth who are the last remaining maximum-security prisoners in Virginia's juvenile justice system.

Virginia courts are committing less than half the number of juveniles to state custody each year than they did a decade ago, and fewer of those youths are entering state correctional centers, under a four-year effort to transform the juvenile justice system.

Instead, more youths are either serving sentences in local detention centers under contracts with the state or receiving help from a widening array of services in their communities, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice said in a new report to state legislators.

Visits by families to incarcerated youths nearly doubled from mid-2017 to mid-2018 — now totaling almost 6,000 visits a year — as the state puts a new premium on family participation to help rehabilitate young offenders as close to their communities as possible.

The transformation effort, conceived in 2014 and launched a year later, depends on the General Assembly’s continued assent to using the annual savings from closing big youth prisons to pay for services closer to home, either in local detention centers or community programs.

“We’re doing this without having to ask for any money,” said Andy Block, director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, in an interview. “We’re trying to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

At the same time, Virginia has begun planning for new, smaller state prisons for custody of what the department calls “high-risk youth,” while emphasizing a community treatment model instead of punishment to improve the odds against them committing new crimes and returning to the youth or adult correctional systems.

The new report acknowledges that recidivism rates have not declined, even though the number of youths arrested within 12 months of their release from state direct care or being placed on probation has fallen by 20 to 25 percent. Those numbers generally correspond with fewer youths coming into the system.

“The department’s long-term expectation of a decrease in recidivism rates has not yet been achieved, and additional time is necessary for its changes to become permanent fixtures of Virginia’s juvenile justice system,” the report states.

The report says the success of the transformation initiative depends on “continued support from all branches of government.” Specifically, it says the agency’s attempts to replace the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Chesterfield County “will require ongoing engagement with the General Assembly to preserve levels of funding and continue their support.”

The state ran into opposition from local communities, anti-prison activists and the assembly’s money committees over its initial plans to build a 60-bed youth prison in Chesapeake and a 96-bed facility in Bon Air to replace two old prisons built to hold more than 500 youths.

After Chesapeake backed out of a plan to transfer land to the state for the new prison because of local opposition, the state has received legislative permission to negotiate with Isle of Wight County to build a facility on county land that would be closer to the communities in Hampton Roads and the Peninsula that commit the most kids to state custody.

The state is negotiating with the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors and Economic Development Authority for the transfer of property in the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park for the juvenile facility.

The plan to replace the Bon Air facility with a new prison on the 428-acre property ran into opposition at the House Appropriations Committee, which prevailed in the final budget to require that the state find a different site in central Virginia and instead report on the market value and best use of the Chesterfield property.

The Department of General Services, the state’s real estate arm, has analyzed 22 potential alternative sites for the facility in the region but hasn’t found much encouragement in Henrico and Hanover counties, even though the state still owns hundreds of acres in Hanover, where two juvenile justice centers previously operated.

Chesterfield generally supports a new center in the county because of the jobs it would support, but is considering zoning changes and redevelopment options for the Bon Air property. Richmond didn’t suggest any sites in the city.

The Department of General Services also was directed to determine the best use of the former Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Powhatan County. The agency questioned the viability of selling the property because of the debt it carries and the cost of demolishing the buildings.

Instead, it supports transferring the land to the Department of Corrections, which already runs an agribusiness operation on the property and proposes to create an academy for staff development, an emergency services training unit, and training for re-entry programs, as well as general construction and environmental services.

General Services also supports a request by the Department of Conservation and Recreation to expand Powhatan State Park along the Beaumont property’s James River frontage and create a second park entrance on Beaumont Road.

The shutdown of Beaumont in mid-2017 saved the state $2.8 million the first year and $23.8 million a year subsequently. The previous year, the juvenile justice agency closed the Reception and Diagnostic Center it had operated on the Bon Air campus to process youths entering the system, saving the state $3.6 million the first year and $4.5 million annually in following years.

The savings allow the agency to pay for community placement programs at nine local detention centers and an array of services across Virginia through two regional service coordinators hired by the state.

The community placement programs, including one at the Chesterfield Juvenile Detention Home, now hold 99 beds for state-committed youths who either qualify for a less restrictive alternative for custody or need a “step-down” facility after their release from youth prisons.

The programs cost the state $8 million a year, with $5.1 million coming from the savings and $2.9 million provided by the state in 2015 to start the initiative.

The state also is using about $6 million in savings to pay for services in community programs through AMIkids and Evidence-Based Associates, the regional service coordinators hired to contract with local providers of almost two dozen services, from counseling for anger management to helping youths with sexualized behaviors. About 1,600 youths received services through the regional providers in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Juvenile justice officials are counting on quantifiable results to maintain political support for the initiative.

Admissions of youths to state care have dropped from 759 in 2009 to 325 in the last fiscal year. The number of youths held in state correctional centers has dropped from 466 in mid-2015 to 216 at the end of June. The number of juveniles coming into the court system has fallen to record lows, and so have probation caseloads and detentions.

Block, the Department of Juvenile Justice director, attributed the declines to judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials recognizing that “the best thing you can do with low-risk kids who do something stupid is keep them out of the system.”

The correctional centers have reduced their use of isolation and restraint to punish or control youths. Three years ago, the centers used isolation in more than 4,000 cases, including 110 involving 72 hours or more of isolation. Last year, the system used isolation in 487 cases, just four for periods of 72 hours or longer.

At the same time, the centers documented fewer violent or aggressive incidents among residents, as well as a decline in use of force to restrain them. Workers’ compensation claims for all juvenile justice employees dropped almost 58 percent in three years and more than 61 percent at the two prisons, which also saved the state money.

“We’re doing this with kids who have a higher risk profile on average than the kids we were seeing three or four years ago,” Block said.

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