Center a lifeline for juvenile offenders

CLARKSBURG – Officials with the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Justice are asking the West Virginia Legislature to look at expanding and improving the state’s youth reporting centers.

A delegation of legislators and state officials toured the Harrison County Youth Reporting Center in Clarksburg Monday as part of a Joint Committee on Children and Families interim committee meeting.

Youth reporting centers are designed to provide services for students who are on parole, have committed misdemeanor offenses or who have been ordered by a court to seek services, such as youths who have gone through county drug courts. The state has 13 youth reporting centers, more than half through partnerships with county boards of education.

Denny Dodson, deputy director with the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services, said the centers provide an important buffer for youths in the state’s legal system.

“I think it truly has a vital impact,” he said. “There is a financial effect and it gives the kids the right treatment at the right time.”

“The reporting center adds an additional layer of care to the system,” said Jason Wright, director of community-based programs for the state Division of Juvenile Services. “We recognize not all youths should be put in a facility.”

“We feel we are catching kids on the front end and preventing them from getting deeper into the system,” said Stephanie Bond, director of the state Division of Juvenile Services.

Wright said while there is demand throughout the state for youth reporting centers and community-based programs, the department has been operating on the same budget since 2008 and has no ability to expand its offerings. Bond said there has been talk in the Legislature of allowing departments to shift resources to fill new needs, but the money for new youth centers is simply not there.

“Currently we don’t have any resources to shift,” she said.

Committee co-chair Del. Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, said the Legislature must look at the youth centers as alternatives to other forms of juvenile punishment because the centers act both as a positive correction for youths and as a cost-saving element.

“I think most of the Legislature doesn’t understand what these youth centers are doing,” she said. “This provides these kids with a place to go with a structured environment, and that is what they need. This is the one place they can go to find support.”

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, said to him the message is clear.

“I think it’s very clear that community-based programs are going to be critical to the future of juvenile justice in West Virginia,” he said. “One of the real challenges is how to expand and have these available on a statewide basis without having disparate services depending on where you are located.”

Laird said legislators should also look at the youth reporting centers as a cost-saving opportunity for the state, and that money saved in other programs should be invested in expanding the community-based programs.

Wright said he hoped Monday’s tour could “bring a light to juvenile community corrections and the need for more centers statewide.”