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Juvenile justice monitor discusses problems, successes in system

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A juvenile justice monitor told legislators Nov. 27 that much needs to change in the juvenile justice system, noting that some residents are receiving flat sentences and some are inappropriately placed because of psychological or emotional issues.

Cindy Largent-Hill, who has served as a West Virginia Supreme Court juvenile justice monitor since March, presented the findings of the adjudicated juvenile rehabilitation review commission during a select committee meeting on children, juveniles and other issues.

The Supreme Court established the commission in 2011 to look into Division of Juvenile Service operations and programs at the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem and the Kenneth "Honey" Rubenstein Juvenile Center in Davis. Now, the commission reviews other facilities as needed.

The state Supreme Court also set up the commission to look into the death of an Industrial resident and delve into reports of physical assault and sexual activity between residents and staff at that facility.

An independent review from a New York Coroner determined no foul play and no indication of self injury, she explained. Largent-Hill said the youth's heart had stopped after he had retired to his cell after dinner.

The resident, Largent-Hill said, had a cold and was weak the week before but it is unknown whether that contributed to his death. She said the resident may not have been given a 15-minute check, however.  

After visiting the facilities, Largent-Hill said there were causes for concern "and in some cases alarm."

The first cause concern was that there was no face-to-face contact between psychiatrists and residents, which is a problem division-wide.

Another division-wide problem, she said, is the residents' internal appeal process.

Continuing problems in the system, she said, are residents being inappropriately placed because of psychological or emotional issues, residents receiving flat sentences and the lack of contact with attorneys during incarceration.

She said the Rubenstein facility does not have as big of a problem with inappropriately placed residents because it has more flexibility with who it accepts rather than the industrial facility.

As for flat sentences, Largent-Hill said the commission is working with the state's juvenile judges to discuss the purpose of these types of sentences and encourage judges to move away from them.

When considering these flat sentences, Largent-Hill said it is important to take into account transition periods. She said she knew residents who ended up in homeless shelters shortly after their release.

Other problems were limited to the Industrial Home. Largent-Hill said residents were controlled by lockdown and black paper was placed on windows, blocking light and residents' views of the outside world.

 "Often there would be just a small peephole for the staff to see inside," Largent-Hill said.

Residents also were forced into cold cells where there were thin blankets and mattresses, she said.

"The blankets and mattresses are atrocious," she said. "The mattress is thicker than a cell phone but it's really thin and it sits on a concrete slab. There's no pillow."

The problems extended to the length of time and quality of showers and food. Largent-Hill said residents were limited to 10-minute showers, and the length of the shower was up to the officer. Officers also determined whether residents received a "fire" or "ice" shower, she said.

The quality and quantity of food at the facility also was a problem, she said. Largent-Hill said residents were not given condiments and they often left hungry.

Largent-Hill said she was surprised after her visit to the Rubenstein Center – a minimum security facility – to hear what former industrial residents had to say about their transfer.

"When I asked a teen boy, I asked what is different and I thought he would say freedom. What I'm told consistently is, ‘I'm not hungry anymore and I can go to the bathroom when I want,'" she recalled. 

She did note several improvements both at the industrial and at the division-wide level, however.

The industrial home now has a new superintendent and management staff, Largent-Hill noted.

Largent-Hill also said a psychiatrist now comes into that facility periodically. Yet, most visits still are conducted by video conference.

Officials also got rid of the black paper over the windows at the Industrial facility, Largent-Hill said. Now, officers only will place black magnets over the window as a loss of privilege.

There also have been improvements in the gender specific programming at that facility. Largent-Hill said the commission has witnessed "amazing changes" from the female residents.

Largent-Hill also talked about the possibility of a new women's center, which would be located three miles away from the all-male Rubenstein facility. For the Davis Center Project, one building would be refurbished and another would be rebuilt.

There are some concerns with the Davis Center Project, Largent-Hill said. One concern is that design for the new facility does not include a kitchen. Under the current plan, the Rubenstein center would transport food to the new facility. However, if there is another storm like Hurricane Sandy, there could be problems, she said.

In that storm, the road was completely closed for three days.

"Grocery trucks couldn't get to the facility to three days. If that storm had occurred while the facility was in place and there's no kitchen, how are you going to feed those girls?"

Officials also would need an all-female staff and additional medical personnel.

Largent-Hill said she wanted to make legislators aware of the commission's work and why the court takes juvenile rehabilitation seriously.

"I wanted to ask folks to look at juvenile justice issues in the state because these are teens that are either overlooked or ignored," she said. "I am pleased the state of West Virginia has decided to embrace this population and make some significant changes. It's a positive step for West Virginia."