- Report Published -
|Juvenile Justice System Reform|
|Virginia Commission on Youth|
|HJR 604 (1995)|
|The rise in the incidence of violent juvenile crime in Virginia and across the nation has prompted many state legislatures to re-evaluate the premises and structure of the juvenile justice system in their states. In addition to an increase in juvenile crime rates, the service system for juveniles in Virginia has changed radically since the last comprehensive review of juvenile justice conducted in 1977. The establishment of a separate juvenile correctional agency, the Comprehensive Services Act (CSA), and the Virginia Juvenile Community Crime Control Act (VJCCCA) reflect some of the major structural and funding changes to Virginia's juvenile justice system in recent years. However, these reforms did not attempt to reassess the philosophy of the juvenile justice system as enunciated in the Code of Virginia. House Joint Resolution No. 604 (HJR 604) had as its study mandate a comprehensive review of the system, encompassing purpose, structure, funding and dispositions available for specific juvenile offender populations.|
The HJR 604 Task Force held six meetings between April 1st and December 31st. These meetings provided members with data analyses, legal research, and results of surveys of Virginia juvenile justice practitioners and the general public. Given the short timeframe to address a wide array of issues, the 22-member Task Force broke into smaller workgroups to allow greater attention to be devoted to each of the study's topic areas. The four workgroups held ten meetings at which specific areas of reform were identified and discussed. Commission on Youth staff researched professional journals and other states' and conducted data analysis on juvenile crime trends and service delivery systems. This information was synthesized by the full Task Force, resulting in the adoption of 55 recommendations for improving the juvenile justice system in Virginia.
On balance the Task Force affirmed the successes of the current juvenile justice system. Overall, the Court Service Unit staff exercises appropriate discretion in their diversion decisions and work effectively with other local human service agencies despite limited resources. Communities have developed innovative programs which respond to the diverse needs of their clientele. Staff in both secure and non-secure residential facilities intervenes effectively in the lives of juveniles. Members of the judiciary make fair and sound decisions based on consideration of all the facts before them. Involvement of the private sector has served to expand the service options available to offenders and their families. While secure facilities in both community and institutional settings are dangerously overcrowded, front line and administrative staff are to be commended for continuing to provide meaningful interventions.
The problems identified in the juvenile justice system suggest recurring themes which the Task Force recommendations seek to address. The first is the absence of a comprehensive system of interventions to respond consistently and effectively at the early stages of problem behavior. Juvenile offenders develop over a period of time, providing indications of their future direction. Awareness of and responsiveness to the young person's behavior, including attendance in school and active parental involvement, could avoid later court involvement. The early intervention system of response must be strengthened and supported on both the state and local levels. The second theme, recidivism, indicates that the court gives too many chances and seems to wait until the offender's behavior escalates before meaningful sanctions are imposed. Clear, predictable consequences must be provided to the offenders and their families if the system is to maintain credibility with the public. The third theme relates to the lack of available counseling services at the community level, specifically for sex offenders, aggressive youth, and drug traffickers. Lastly, the quality of institutional services must be improved in order for those youth who are committed to the state to receive the sound therapeutic and educational services necessary to capitalize on their time of confinement.
The recommendations are offered as a means to move the state closer to realizing its ideal--namely, to prevent young people from involvement with the juvenile justice system, but to provide them, once involved, with meaningful and predictable services which offer them the opportunity to reform and become productive citizens.