Juvenile justice system going from patchwork to teamwork

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s juvenile justice system is going to get the overhaul some say it’s needed for years in a bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

The governor put his signature on the reform act as police, judges, lawmakers and others looked on. Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis was on hand and said the hallmark piece of the reform will be the teamwork that will be involved.

“It’s a coming together of all of the stakeholders in West Virginia focusing in one arena to deal with these children,” she said. “It’s a unified front, which will make the system work much better.”

The current system has been criticized for putting low-level offenders with juveniles who have committed more serious crimes and in many cases sending some of those juveniles to other states as part of their incarceration.

The $4.5 million reform places truancy diversion specialists in all 55 counties to provide early intervention.

“The statistics are consistent throughout the United States, truancy is the beginning,” Justice Davis said.

The initiative also creates a two-step diversion process that will use community-based groups before a juvenile petition is filed for a status offense or misdemeanor against the boy or girl. Justice Davis said the diversion will help the children in several ways.

“Hopefully guide them in the correct direction and save the taxpayers of West Virginia millions and millions of dollars,” she said.

Delegate Carol Miller (R-Cabell) said community programs can fill in the gaps and helps kids before they get into more serious trouble.

“Often they are not taught these things at home and so for them to be able to stay in their community and learn from the people that care about them–that can help mode them–I think it will be a real positive,” Miller said.

The governor’s office said other reforms include:

-expanding youth reporting centers across the state to provide programs to children at home instead of through out-of-home placements;

-introducing evidence-based services and pilot programs to support restorative justice programs, substance abuse recovery services, mental health programs and family therapies.

“Today marks a significant step forward for our young people, their families and the communities we call home,” Gov. Tomblin said. “I’m grateful for the collective efforts of the members of the Intergovernmental Taskforce on Juvenile Justice, Pew Charitable Trusts and the overwhelming bipartisan support we received from both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature. By signing Senate Bill 393 into law, we are giving our children the opportunity to be part of our state’s bright future and put them on the right track to live a fulfilling life and achieve success in the Mountain State,” Gov. Tomblin said in a news release. “This important piece of legislation puts our kids first, and I’m confident it will improve outcomes for West Virginia youth and their families, increase accountability for juveniles and the justice system, and protect both public safety and the state’s finances.”

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