Fewer juveniles locked up in WV; recommendations to continue the trend

Shanteya Hudson

The number of children behind bars in West Virginia has declined significantly in recent years, but their advocates said more work could be done to create effective alternatives to incarceration.

The one-day count of detained youths in 2021 was nearly 25,000 nationwide, which is a 60% decrease over the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Josh Rovner, director of youth justice for The Sentencing Project, said while the trend is positive, he does not expect it to continue. He pointed out at least part of the decrease was because of the pandemic.

“When you think about the things that kids get arrested for, it’s often school-based referrals,” Rovner observed. “And if virtual school is happening, then kids aren’t going to be referred by their school resource officers. They’re not going to be shoplifting if all the stores are closed, they’re not going to be getting into fights if they’re all staying at home.”

A one-day count in 2019 found almost 500 kids under 18 were in detention facilities in West Virginia. By 2021, the number had dropped to 345. Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation said young people released from correctional confinement have high rates of being rearrested.

Research has shown children who are incarcerated often experience significant long-term consequences, Rovner noted persist into adulthood.

“Whether there’s one child who is locked up — or 10,000 or 100,000 — it’s important to realize just how toxic these facilities are for kids,” Rovner contended. “They have much worse outcomes, not only on their education and career achievements, but also much more likely to reoffend.”

Recognizing the adverse effects, experts and activists are asking for a more compassionate approach to juvenile justice. Reforms focusing on rehabilitation and community-based support systems have proven to be more effective in addressing the underlying issues than locking juveniles up.