Several changes in where West Virginia incarcerates juvenile offenders, along with $2 million in facility upgrades, are the result of a judge’s order that two centers for underage criminals be closed. The question now is whether new surroundings will translate to more appropriate treatment and handling of youthful inmates.
This spring, state officials decided to close the Industrial Home for Youth at Salem, after a lawsuit was filed over allegations of mistreatment of juveniles there. Mercer County Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn, appointed by the state Supreme Court to handle the case, found a number of shortcomings. Among them were mixing young offenders with others who, though 18 years of age or older, were being housed in close proximity. Outright mistreatment of some juveniles, along with failure to engage in realistic rehabilitation, also were cited.
Then, this summer, Aboulhosn decided problems at the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, also at Salem, were serious enough it should be closed to juveniles. Youthful sex offenders and a few juveniles with behavioral or mental problems are housed there.
State corrections officials have decided to convert the Salem facilities for use by adult prisoners. Meanwhile, juveniles who had been at Salem have been sent or are to be transferred elsewhere.
About $2 million will be used to upgrade some of the corrections facilities, most in southern or eastern West Virginia, to be used in the new system for juveniles, devised directly or indirectly because of the judge’s orders.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 13, but that will do no more than give Aboulhosn an opportunity to review and, in all likelihood, sign off on physical facilities.
Much more important will be how the juvenile offenders are handled. Some of the state’s plans in that regard sound good. For example, plans to keep youths convicted of serious crimes away from those incarcerated for lesser offenses are included.
Whether the new system works – providing a real potential to rehabilitate some juvenile offenders – will remain to be seen, however. That, not just different quarters for various categories of youth criminals, should be Judge Aboulhosn’s criteria for deciding whether the state is complying with his mandate for change.