City considers closing Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center

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The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, based near Landmark Mall in Alexandria's West End, serves Alexandria, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, a 70-bed youth correctional facility located near Landmark Mall, could potentially close.

The center serves the City of Alexandria, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. The three jurisdictions are funding a study to look into changes that could make the center more efficient, including potentially shuttering the facility and detaining youth in another center in Northern Virginia, according to the City of Alexandria website.

The detention center houses kids from 10 to 17 years old who have been placed there by order of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court or the Circuit Court. Those sentenced typically have multiple misdemeanor or felony offenses and present a danger to themselves or others, according to the website.

While it is based in Alexandria, the center is owned and operated by the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Commission, a five-member body composed of two representatives from Alexandria, two from Arlington and one from Falls Church. Commission members are appointed by the city council or county board of their respective jurisdictions. The state Department of Juvenile Justice regulates the facility.

The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The center itself opened at 200 S. Whiting St. in 1961. It has undergone several upgrades since, including a full renovation in the ‘80s. The underutilized space at the facility, primarily due to declining Juvenile incarceration rates across the country, is one of the reasons the three jurisdictions launched the study.

“This is a facility that was designed at a time when youth incarceration was much higher, and for a number of reasons, which are positive reasons, that’s no longer the case,” city spokesman Craig Fifer said.

The center has room for 70 youths, but its average daily population ranges from 20 to 25, landing the center at about 33 percent utilization, according to NVJDC Executive Director Johnitha McNair. The usage rate is consistent with other centers in Northern Virginia, McNair said.

“I don’t think this facility has had 70 beds filled … in the last 15 years,” McNair said. “Because the trend nationwide … is that they’re moving more towards community-based approaches. If a child can receive services in the community, safely, without being a threat to the public, then that’s what the courts … are moving towards.”

With the space likely larger than it needs to be, fiscal efficiency is another facet the study will examine. The center has a budget of $5.8 million for Fiscal Year 2020, with revenue coming from the three jurisdictions, as well as state and federal funding.

In addition, the center has an agreement with the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice to house juveniles across the state in need of certain assessment, treatment or services available at the NVJDC. That program brings in about $1 million in revenue from the state each year.

“That contribution lessens the monetary contribution of the jurisdictions,” McNair said. “That program gives us an opportunity to bring revenue into the center. … I think that really helps with the financial obligation to keep a facility like this up and running.”

The Moss Group, an independent criminal justice contractor based in D.C., began the $299,000 study on the NVDJC in July. The group is expected to deliver a final report in January 2020.

Once the three jurisdictions and the commission review the Moss Group’s findings, potential outcomes include closing the facility, doing nothing and restructuring the center.

“The question is, is this facility still the right approach to incarcerating the youth that do need to be incarcerated, or would it be more appropriate to place them in another facility or build a different facility or resize the facility?” Fifer said. “Is this the best use of the facility and the land, and is this the best service for the youth?”

The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

Members of the commission have expressed concern about potentially closing the center. The root of their trepidation, they said, is the children and the challenges they would face if placed in other facilities.

If Alexandria juveniles are placed in another detention center, they will likely experience different programming, treatment and education options than those offered at the NVJDC.

“[The] Fairfax [County Juvenile Detention Center] does not do a lot of the treatment and other stuff that we do. They’re there and your kids are in detention. Period. That’s it,” Alexandria commissioner Patricia Hennig said.

McNair joined the NVJDC as executive director in 2017, and since then, has been working to improve the culture of the center. From emphasizing family engagement to using cognitive behavioral therapy practices, McNair said her approach is different from those used by the other juvenile detention centers in the state.

“I have the highest amount of respect for the other 23 facilities in Virginia,” McNair said. “I know the superintendents and directors. We’re friends. We often talk about strategies we’re all using, [but] without a doubt, I know that the approach I use here is different.”

One thing that sets NVJDC apart is that it does not confine kids to their rooms if they commit an infraction, which is legal by state standards.

“If I have a kid that commits a rule infraction in here, I can put that child in room confinement for a certain amount of time, up to five days if the paperwork is right,” McNair said. “I can confidently say to you that [we are] the only facility out of the 24 in the state of Virginia that does not utilize disciplinary room confinement. … We just don’t do that. My kids will absolutely be exposed to that if they’re moved somewhere else.”

The average stay for a juvenile just detained is 16 to 28 days, McNair said. She said she attempts to make each resident’s time at the center worthwhile, however long it is.

“While we have the kids, we put a very strong emphasis on changing their behaviors, responding appropriately to conflict, especially familial conflict,” McNair said. “… We try to get to the root cause of what led these kids here and work with them in here where they’re getting stabilized on their meds, where they’re having access to therapy and counseling. We have them work every day on making better decisions.”

Since the children at the center are school aged, most of them 16 or 17 years old, NVJDC partners with Alexandria City Public Schools to provide education. Like a normal middle or high school, the residents are in class from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. The center’s education program includes four classrooms and nine teachers, according to Principal Dr. Victor Martin Jr., Ed.D.

“One of our goals is to have kids have the ability to graduate once they leave us,” Martin said. “When they arrive, if they’re in World History I at their base school, when they come to us, we place them in World History I so they participate in the classes they would need to earn credit toward graduation.”

“We have a very high success rate with our kids here being able to get their diplomas or their GEDs, taking vocational classes and certifications, which is not always the case in detention, but it’s a high focus here for us,” McNair said.

Beyond the organized programming offered at the NVJDC, McNair said one of her overarching goals is family engagement, since many of the residents’ legal infractions often stem from strained familial relationships.

This past spring, McNair implemented a program offering financial aid to families who want to visit their children but are unable to do so.

“I will Uber that family here, or get passes for them to use the bus or public transportation,” McNair said. “It’s not something we have to do, we just saw the need, and that’s not something most facilities are going to consider. I had to look at my budget, reallocate funds, cut some things, in an effort to really put my money where my mouth is, literally. If family engagement is a critical component of what my vision is, then those families might need some additional support.”

McNair added that this kind of personalized assistance would likely be lost at other centers.

“[If] our kids go to other centers … the family engagement piece is definitely going to struggle,” she said.

All of the practices and programs McNair has implemented and continued at the NVJDC are made possible by the commission, which hires the executive director and has regular input in how the facility is operated.

Commissioners expressed concern that if the facility is closed and children are relocated to other detention centers, the three jurisdictions would forfeit that local input.

“You can’t argue, there clearly is excess capacity. But for me, it comes down to local control versus not local control,” Falls Church commissioner Alex Boston said. “… There’s always the question of money, and things can be done better, but I think it would be a shame to give up local control of where kids are placed and the services that they receive.”

Beyond local governance of the center, there are other benefits to the center being in Alexandria, such as on-going supportive services once the young people have served their sentences.

“As students transition from the program, we’re able to provide them with support not just through the court services unit but the ones that we have in Alexandria,” Martin said. “For example, mental health … housing, transportation, family counseling, substance abuse, all of those types of things, [are] one of the great benefits of having the kids here.”

Fifer countered that relocating children to another facility doesn’t have to mean giving up local control. For example, if Alexandria paid Fairfax’s Juvenile Detention Center to reserve a certain number of beds, Fairfax could offer a seat on the body that operates that facility.

“It’s not necessarily the case that closing the facility would give up local control,” Fifer said. “Arlington and Falls Church are good examples of localities right now that have a voice in running a facility that is not in their locality. … We can influence a process through an agreement or we can influence a process by having a formal oversight seat.”

Fifer said the city does not have a planned outcome for the study or the future of the center. However, commissioners said they suspect otherwise.

Hennig accused the city of attempting to acquire and use the land for redevelopment efforts on the West End.

“This is very frankly a land grab attempt,” Hennig said. “Right now, my entire thing on this is I am furious, and I am furious over the fact that you people that are quite bluntly [saying] ‘We have to redevelop the West End.’ … This is all ego.”

“I think it’s legitimate to ask questions about cost and how things are being operated and efficiencies, but I think the motivations, the motivations need to be looked at,” Boston said. “I do think that there are potentially other motivations that at least some of the officials in Alexandria may have about the disposition of the center and that probably played into wanting to do the study.”

Fifer said that because the commission owns and operates the property, they will play a role in deciding the center’s future.

“The city has a funding role and an oversight role. … It’s not that we can make a unilateral decision. City council can’t vote to close the facility period and then that is what will happen,” Fifer said. “… We’re really hoping that this will be more of a consensus approach based on what appears to be best for all involved.”

Three community meetings will be held during the next week for the public to hear more about the study and have the opportunity to provide feedback. There will be a meeting in Falls Church tonight at 7 p.m., in Alexandria on Nov. 20 and in Arlington on Nov. 21. For more information about meeting times and locations, visit www.alexandriava.gov/juveniledetentioncenter.

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