West Virginia task force assembled by governor suggests changes to juvenile justice system

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CHARLESTON, West Virginia — A West Virginia panel says changes to the juvenile justice system could reduce youthful offender populations in state out-of-home facilities by at least 40 percent in five years, while cutting state costs by at least $59 million.

The West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice released its recommendations Thursday. They include more early intervention and diversion programs in schools, enhanced community services to give judges more options, better data collection and a focus on reoffender prevention.

Sen. William Laird, a Fayette County Democrat and task force member, noted that West Virginia has been a "true outlier" in youthful incarceration trends.

The Mountain State nearly doubled the rate it sent youths to juvenile facilities from 1997 to 2011, a stark contrast to decreases nationwide. Only three other states had increases: Nebraska, North Dakota and Idaho. West Virginia's rate increased the most.

The report says that between 2002 and 2012, referrals to juvenile courts increased by 124 percent for status offenses, which wouldn't have been a crime if committed by an adult. In 2012, excessive unexcused school absences, or truancy, accounted for 40 percent of referrals.

The number of status offenders put in out-of-home custody jumped 255 percent from 2002 to 2012. More than half of the youth put in Department of Health and Human Resources facilities in 2012 were status offenders, the report by the panel and the Pew Charitable Trusts states.

The report says it costs more than $100,000 annually per youth to keep offenders in out-of-home facilities, ranging from detention centers to psychiatric facilities.

The panel suggested ideas like requiring probation officers in schools to address truancy, using the West Virginia National Guard's quasi-military program for at-risk youth more often, adding youth reporting centers and dealing with truancy less severely for students 11 years old or younger.

Status offenders and misdemeanor-level youth should be placed in community services, while youth placed in residential facilities should be transitioned to community services within 30 days to three months, the report states.

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia said the proposed reforms don't go far enough.

State ACLU Executive Director Jennifer Meining suggested allowing 10 unexcused school absences per school year before referring a student to juvenile court, versus the current five-day threshold.

Lawmakers will consider the report's suggestions during the January-to-March legislative session.

The governor has cited successes in the state Justice Reinvestment Act, which focuses on community-based supervision, risk assessments, investment in drug courts and other community-based treatment options for substance abuse.

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