State should stop mixing juvenile, adult offenders
The attention in recent months on how juvenile offenders are incarcerated in West Virginia has raised a variety of issues, but one of the more troubling ones apparently will require legislative action to fix.
That particular problem is that juvenile offenders are incarcerated with people who are actually young adults, or people older than 18. In some cases, those young adults are people who were sent off to adult prisons before being brought back to juvenile detention facilities.
That does not strike us as a good situation, and a judge who has overseen a lawsuit attacking conditions at two state juvenile detention facilities agrees. Mercer Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn, during a hearing into safety at the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center in Salem, noted that a 20-year-old sexual offender there had been accused of forcing a 15-year-old offender to perform a sexual act. He rightly questioned the wisdom of housing adult sexual offenders with younger offenders and had this to say about the practice: “It’s a bad idea. It’s a terrible idea. It’s horrific to think that that’s going on.”
However, solving the problem will require a change in state law, officials say. State law now requires that many juvenile offenders remain in the custody of the Division of Juvenile Services system until they are 21 years old, Denny Dodson, deputy director of the division, told the Charleston Daily Mail.
So what’s the result of that? According to data provided the Daily Mail by the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, 65 of the 256 male and female offenders in juvenile detention centers in early July were 18 or older, most of them 18 or 19. Of the offenders who are juveniles, most are 15 to 17, but 29 of them are 14 or younger, including three 12-year-olds. In addition, 53 or the offenders 18 or older have been found guilty of a crime and been sentenced.
In cases where an offender has committed a crime while in a juvenile facility, legal action is pursued. If the offender is found guilty, he or she could be sent to an adult prison to serve the sentence, but once that is completed is returned to the juvenile facility if still under the age of 21.
This mix of older offenders who have continued to commit crimes and younger offenders as young as 12 runs counter to a safe situation. Dodson noted that the return of problematic adult offenders to juvenile facilities frustrates corrections officers and is bad for safety and morale. He added that officers keep a close lookout for older offenders bullying younger ones. But considering recently-highlighted staffing issues at some facilities, monitoring in the facilities may be less than complete.
A more reasonable guide would be that incarcerated juvenile offenders who have committed crimes worthy of putting them in an adult facility should remain in the custody of an adult facility.
This is no simple issue, but lawmakers should work with corrections officials to develop an approach that will make younger offenders less vulnerable in our state’s facilities. ….
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