As part of its 2022 work, the Commission on Youth is undertaking a study of the effectiveness and efficiency of Virginia’s juvenile detention centers, an effort that was sparked by the declining numbers of children housed in juvenile detention centers as a result of recent reforms focused on diverting youth who are involved in the criminal justice system into less restrictive settings. The study plan adopted by the Commission earlier this year points out that the decline in youths committed to juvenile detention centers is expected to continue and that potential savings could be achieved by consolidating facilities. The Commission convened an Advisory Committee to assist with the study; VACo’s Executive Director, Dean Lynch, is serving on the Committee, which held its first meeting on May 19.
Elizabeth Spinney, Policy Analyst for the Commission on Youth, provided an overview of the study plan and the current status of the juvenile detention system. Juvenile detention centers serve youth who are pre-disposition (awaiting resolution of their cases) and post-disposition. Some detention centers also contract with the state to house youth in Community Placement Programs or other contracted placements. The majority of youth in detention centers are pre-disposition, and the average length of stay for those youth is 27.8 days. Average daily population for all detention centers in 2021 was below capacity (JLARC noted in its 2021 study of the juvenile justice system that only about 30 percent of capacity is currently being used), although several juvenile detention center directors pointed out that true capacity, as measured by staffing levels, is lower than capacity as measured by the number of certified beds.
While total detainments as well as average daily population have fallen significantly between 2012 and 2021, state spending on juvenile detention (which funds educational services and a portion of operational costs) has not declined. JLARC estimated that $7-14 million in state funds could be saved by consolidating facilities; however, a variety of factors, such as the age and remodeling needs of facilities, the availability of treatment space, and distance from the communities that would be served, required further exploration before recommendations could be made regarding which centers could be consolidated. Moreover, the detention centers are locally or regionally owned, and the operational costs are largely shouldered by localities.
A panel of juvenile detention center directors – Chesterfield County Superintendent Marilyn Brown, Fairfax County Superintendent Jason Houtz, and Rappahannock Juvenile Detention Center Superintendent Carla White — provided their perspectives on the role of juvenile detention centers and the unique challenges they face in serving children in all phases of the juvenile justice system. Children are admitted into detention at any time of day, often with behavioral, educational, and medical challenges, such as a history of trauma, inconsistent school attendance, mental health conditions, and medical conditions requiring medication management, among other factors. Detention centers may house co-defendants (who must be separated) or juveniles awaiting transfer or a residential placement, and may house pre-dispositional juveniles for a few days, or post-dispositional youth for several years. Panelists pointed out that the complexity of the population served means that a ratio of staffed beds to average daily population may not be an accurate reflection of facility capacity. In addition, panelists pointed out that there are advantages to detention centers housing youth close to home, as the centers are embedded in their local communities and have partnerships with local law enforcement, Community Services Boards, schools, and social services, and are aware of other community resources to assist youth. Panelists discussed the importance of having flexible space that can accommodate changing facility needs, such as quarantine housing during the pandemic, for example. Lastly, panelists presented information on factors contributing to increases in operating costs for detention centers, including inflation and starting salary increases to assist in recruiting staff.
The Advisory Committee is scheduled to hold two meetings over the summer in advance of a planned report to the full Commission in early fall.