Our View: Juvenile Detention Center study needs a child-focused solution

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The Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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It’s good governance for cities to turn a critical eye to where they spend money and why.

The budget as a whole is examined each year through a methodical process, but each individual, ongoing expenditure doesn’t normally receive existential scrutiny. The exception to this is when new programs requiring additional budgetary outlays are under consideration – and when a program is a candidate for elimination.

In that vein, we think it’s good that the City of Alexandria initiated the study being conducted by the Moss Group examining the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center. Operated in Alexandria with oversight by commissioners appointed by our local government and those from Arlington and Falls Church, the NVJDC receives money from those three entities, plus state and federal funding.

Following a nationwide trend of declining youth incarceration rates, the center averages around 25 detainees at any given point in time out of a 70-bed capacity. Given that the city’s annual contribution to the NVJDC is around $1.5 million and the facility is significantly underutilized, it appears that change is needed.

It’s imperative, however, that the coming change be done through a child-centric prism and not from a development-driven agenda.

As today’s Alexandria Times front page story, “City considers closing Juvenile Detention Center” indicates, some of the NVJDC’s commissioners suspect that city leaders have ulterior motives in pushing for change. One commissioner flatly referred to the initiative as a “land grab.” The young people detained at the NVJDC, mostly 16- and 17-year-olds, are there for repeated, serious offenses, such as malicious wounding, felony firearm use and grand larceny. These are not students caught smoking a little weed who can be assigned community service hours and rehabilitated with counseling outside of incarceration.

In other words, while the ranks of juvenile detainees have declined sharply in recent years, there’s always going to be a need to incarcerate some number of the most difficult cases. The detention numbers may well be at or near their nadir, unlikely to fall further.

Vital to this discussion is the fact that NVJDC detainees are almost certainly young people from difficult family situations, probably facing multiple barriers to success. And the NVJDC is one of the few juvenile detention facilities that does more than simply keep the detainees locked up while they serve their time.

Executive Director Johnitha McNair emphasizes family involvement and even provides transportation for families to visit their children in the NVJDC. The center provides programs that are not required but needed for successful rehabilitation of extremely troubled youths, such as behavioral counseling.

McNair also doesn’t allow disciplinary room confinement at the NVJDC, something she said definitely takes place in the other 23 detention centers in Virginia. Students work toward graduation while at the NVJDC, as Alexandria City Public Schools operates a school with four classrooms and nine teachers at the facility.

In considering cost, it’s imperative that what’s best for these young people, most of them still students, be paramount. The full cost of closing the NVJDC can’t be measured in dollars and cents: each detainee that is rehabilitated from criminal activity is given a chance at a better life, which is beneficial to both the individual and society.

Rather than close the NVJDC, we think it should be looked at entrepreneurially. If our primary motivation is to best serve the most troubled youths in our community, then the NVJDC should remain open.

Cost to the city can be cut by finding other uses for the 40 to 45 beds that are underutilized. Perhaps a partial remodeling can be done on the center to provide a separate, 10 or 15 bed inpatient facility for opioid treatment. As our series of stories in 2017 made clear, there’s a shortage of government run in-patient treatment options in Northern Virginia.

Or perhaps the three jurisdictions that run the NVJDC can further partner with the state to place more detainees from other parts of the region or state in the Alexandria facility. McNair is also interested in providing vocational training options.

Creative thinking can cut costs while saving the center. We owe these kids a child-centered solution.

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