RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Virginia isn’t doing enough to prevent young people in the criminal justice system from ending up back behind bars, a new report finds. 

The 100-plus-page review from the state’s nonpartisan watchdog agency that was presented to lawmakers on Monday also highlighted troubling disparities across different races and regions of the Commonwealth. 

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission was directed to study the impact of juvenile justice reforms from 2016 that were aimed at reducing the youth population in state correctional centers while maintaining public safety, increasing community-based programs and ensuring access to rehabilitative services to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

JLARC Director Hal Greer said, while the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice has had “considerable success in achieving these goals,” some significant concerns still need to be addressed. 

“Among higher-risk offenders, recidivism rates remain high and rehabilitative programs are not adequate. There are also significant fairness concerns,” Greer said. “Youth in the system often don’t have quality legal representation. Black youth are being referred to the system at higher rates than white youth.” 

In the last ten years, the number of youth in Virginia’s system has steadily declined along with national trends. The population has dropped from 9,551 in 2011 to 2,980 in 2021, according to the report. 

As of May of 2021, JLARC said more than 82 percent of minors in the system were in community settings, compared to 18 percent at state, local or regional detention centers. 

However, as the state’s juvenile justice system shifts its focus from punishment to rehabilitation, JLARC Project Lead Drew Dickinson told lawmakers that more resources are needed. Of 1,165 youth released from rehabilitative programs, JLARC found 68 percent were re-convicted within two years. 

“While reducing re-offending among high and moderate risk youth can be challenging, we found that more can likely be done to reduce these recidivism rates,” Dickinson said.

Dickinson said, of the twenty one juvenile detention centers providing rehabilitative programs for youth, eleven of them—or 52 percent—have no evidence-based program to reduce recidivism.  

In addition to that, Dickinson said training requirements “appear insufficient” and there are staff shortages in key roles that may be hindering the success of certain programs. He noted that, if the General Assembly plans to increase salaries for correction officers next session, those raises should carry over to these positions as well to avoid exacerbating recruiting challenges. 

The report also showed that barriers to effective community re-entry remain, though efforts have improved. Specifically, JLARC said youth that are released from custody have limited access to helpful programs and housing.

These problems may be disproportionately impacting Black youth, as they are 2.5 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system in the first place, according to the report.

JLARC also found significant regional differences in how similar offenses are handled, with youth in some areas up to 8 times more likely to have their case diverted. 

“That to me is really shocking because it shows the tremendously disparate way kids are treated in this Commonwealth,” Sen. Janet Howell said during Monday’s meeting.

“I do think that we need to put more funding from beginning to end so that those attorneys who are representing children are paid appropriately so that they can zealously represent the children to get into rehabilitative programs,.” said Del. Charniele Herring in an interview. “Judges clearly need to be educated about alternatives that are available within the community.”

In response to JLARC’s report, the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice Valerie Boykin celebrated the state’s successes but acknowledged there is much more work to do.

“We are a lot different than we were five years ago but we know we are still in the early stages of change,” Boykin said. “I sometimes get a little inpatient and, as I talk to my colleagues across the country, they say it takes years.”