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Charleston Gazette
West Virginia is taking steps forward on two major issues: Prison overcrowding and juvenile justice reform. But important next steps should be taken. Some existing juvenile incarceration facilities should be converted into beds for adult offenders, and the state should place an expanded emphasis on early childhood and Pre-K education. Gov. Tomblin’s prison overcrowding and justice reinvestment bill (SB 371) deserves quick consideration and passage by the House as it received in the Senate. Its provisions will require more screening and services for those convicted and expedited release with supervision for those who committed non-violent crimes. Both steps will reduce the need for additional housing. West Virginia Kids Count noted in the past 13 years that West Virginia has seen juvenile incarceration increase by 60 percent, one of just five states to see an increase. The Division of Juvenile Services has taken overdue action to convert the Industrial Home for Youth into an adult facility providing up to 300 beds. Significant research supports the closing of even more juvenile detention facilities. In a report issued by Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, a compilation of research showing wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is a counterproductive public policy, it notes: • States needlessly spend billions of dollars a year incarcerating nonviolent youth. • States are realigning fiscal resources away from ineffective and expensive state institutions and toward more effective community-based services. • Holding more youth in secure juvenile facilities can lead to costly litigation for states. • Imprisoning youth can have severe detrimental effects on youth, the long-term economic productivity and economic health of communities. • Policies that lock up more youth do not necessarily improve public safety. • Community-based programs increase public safety. • Community-based programs for youth are more cost effective than incarceration. Under the leadership of Justice Margaret Workman, the Adjudicated Juvenile Rehabilitation Review Commission has embraced the entire field of juvenile justice and will report to the Legislature and governor.Nevertheless, the biggest payoff in reducing juvenile delinquency is to place an emphasis on early child care and Pre-K education. Over the past few years, the Center for Business and Economic Research has issued a series of reports providing strong evidence that these programs result in: • Higher school completion rates • Reduced juvenile delinquency • Declines in teen pregnancy • Greater lifetime earnings • Healthier lifestyles • Less drug and substance abuse Based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, the center found a $5.20 return for every state dollar invested in these programs. West Virginia was one of the first states to provide for voluntary universal Pre-K programs for 4-year-old and some 3-year-old students and now ranks fifth in the nation for access for 4-year-olds. Every county now has Pre-K programs, and 70 percent of those eligible are enrolled moving toward the goal of 80 percent. An additional $17 million is in the governor’s budget for Pre-K. Access in rural areas, however, remains a problem, limiting enrollment. The West Virginia picture for early child care programs is not as optimistic. Few of the state’s child care facilities meet national accreditation standards. The cost of child care is so high that low- and middle-income workers are unable to participate. Rural areas are particularly lacking in facilities. While the state has initiated a Quality Rating and Improvement Program, it is woefully under-funded to raise standards and increase access. The problems of prison overcrowding and juvenile delinquency should be solved together. Converting juvenile facilities for adult use, providing community-based treatment, and early release for non-violent offenders helps with the immediate problem. Investing in early childhood and Pre-K provides a longer-term answer. Kent is Lewis Distinguished Professor of Business at Marshall University.