Reform of Virginia’s Juvenile Justice System
Virginia’s juvenile justice system is currently undergoing a major transformation after advocates both internally and externally advocated for the system to place greater focus on rehabilitation versus punishment. Many youth incarcerated in the state’s facilities are there for minor offenses. In addition, youth of color are much more likely to be incarcerated than white youth who commit the same offense. Youth who enter the juvenile justice system in Virginia currently have a 73.5% rate of returning to a DJJ facility or entering the adult corrections system. Research and experience from other states point to more effective and efficient alternatives to protect public safety and reduce recidivism.
Voices helped guide proposals on reforming the failing juvenile justice system as part of the steering committee for the RISE for Youth Coalition. The juvenile justice task force is currently planning on building a facility in Chesapeake that will be focused on rehabilitating youth in smaller trauma informed environments. Follow our blog to stay up to date on this issue.
School to Prison Pipeline
Virginia is the worst in nation for referring students to law enforcement. During the 2012 – 2013 academic school year 27,568 students were suspended and of that 16,019 were elementary school students. In addition, students of color and students with disabilities were disproportionally suspended. Students who are suspended from school are more likely to experience academic failure, mental health problems, substance abuse, gang activity, and justice system involvement, according to research.
In 2016, Voices supported our partners JustChildren in their work on Senate Bill 487, which eliminated the requirement that School Resource Officers (SROs) “enforce school board rules and codes of student conduct.” Too often, SROs are utilized for actions outside of their purpose, tasked as classroom disciplinarians rather than addressing larger safety concerns. For example, a school resource office may have been asked to address the length of a student’s shorts or asked a student to remove their baseball cap and when the student did not respond a referral to law enforcement could have been made. The bill passed in 2016 and represents a small step in a larger effort to clarify school safety roles and prevent unnecessary court referrals for kids who simply show poor behavior, rather than threats to school safety. Voices will continue to work on school-to-prison pipeline issues in the future, and read more on the problem from our friends at JustChildren here.
If we do not address academic failures, suspension and expulsion, and school policing, then students will continue to be pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.
Juvenile Justice Policy Goals
For current legislative initiatives, please visit our State Advocacy page here.
Voices works closely with the Governor’s office, the General Assembly, state and local social services agency leadership, service providers, parents and caregivers, and—most especially—youth to identify, develop, and champion policy improvements for Virginia’s child welfare system. Among our current priorities:
- Monitor the juvenile justice transformation and ensure that court-involved youth have access to a continuum of services and the new DJJ facility is focused on rehabilitation
- Support evidence-based, prevention-focused policies for court-involved youth that emphasize family- and community-based settings
- Support a legislative study on defining disorderly conduct in school settings
- Promote legislation that appropriately limits the use of suspension and expulsion
Resources for Parent/Guardians of Court-Involved Youth
The JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center provides individual representation, community education and organizing, and statewide advocacy.
The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has a family resource inventory available online at here.