By Dijon Stokes, Policy Fellow, ACLU-WV
In April 2015, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 393, a juvenile justice reform bill that was supposed to “enhance government performance, oversight, and accountability,” save the state $20 million over five years, and greatly improve communications between state government agencies that handle incarcerated youth.
But more than four years after the bill was signed into law, is juvenile justice actually being reformed in West Virginia?
A look into the state’s current juvenile justice system shows it is operating mostly unchanged since the passage of the bill. Questions on why the new law isn’t being followed weren’t met with many answers.
One of the law’s key reforms was the creation of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee, which is comprised of officials from the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the state Department of Health and Human Resources. Both agencies house juveniles and therefore need to better communicate about residents who transfer across their facilities.
But that committee hasn’t met in nearly two years, and the number of times it met previously were not immediately available.
The law was also supposed to create a more up-to-date system for tracking data on incarcerated juveniles. However, our analysis again showed that little has changed since 2015, and that records are frequently lost.
In some cases, lost records can mean juveniles who have been in the system for years are entered as “new” when they are really only transferring to a different facility.
And it’s not just juvenile justice where there is a problem with data collection. I speak from personal experience on this, as I was assigned as part of my summer fellowship with ACLU-WV to compile this data from any source I could find. In many cases, I had to go county-by-county and pore over state agency annual reports to create our own database.
For example, when I attempted to compare salaries and court resources available to prosecutors vs. public defenders, I was met with more roadblocks. Information for public defender resources was easy to come by, while information for prosecutors had to be painstakingly pieced together.
As for the promise of juvenile justice reform saving the state $20 million over five years? Well, the committee that was supposed to track that information is the same one that hasn’t met in nearly two years, so we don’t know if there have been any savings.
Data in a juvenile justice database isn’t just a compilation of meaningless words and numbers. They have meaning. They have real lives connected to them. If the purpose of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, then we must take the data seriously. It’s the only way we are going to know if we are improving the system.
Moving forward, this system must change. The people of West Virginia deserve better. Our youth deserve a brighter future.