RICHMOND, Va. — Anti-violence activists said they were disappointed with Governor Glenn Youngkin’s rejection of a measure they said would take a step toward reforming the juvenile justice system and reducing cycles of violence for young people.
Last week in central Virginia, communities mourned the loss of two teenagers who lost their lives to gun violence: Semiyah Yellardy, 17, in Richmond, and Jaheim Dickerson, 16, in Henrico County. . In Dickerson’s case, police say a minor was arrested and charged.
“The children have been through a lot. Their world has been turned upside down and they’re going through trauma,” said Valerie Slater, executive director of the nonprofit Rise For Youth.
Slater said while she is alarmed by an increase in youth crime, she is not surprised.
“We are coming out of a pandemic,” she said. “The way you respond to children who are going through trauma is you provide health responses, bring in mental health providers.”
Now more than ever, Slater said children are in desperate need of mental health support, especially those who live in neighborhoods at higher risk of experiencing violence.
That’s why Slater supports a change in the oversight of the agency responsible for Virginia’s youngest offenders. A bill presented to the 2022 General Assembly was intended to potentially start this process.
House Bill 1197 called for a study of the possible benefits of moving the Department of Juvenile Justice from the jurisdiction of the Secretariat of Public Safety and Homeland Security to the Secretariat of Health and Human Resources.
“This was a bill that was literally going to start a conversation to move from a public safety lens to a public health lens for juvenile justice,” Slater said.
The bill was introduced by Democratic delegate Patrick Hope, who represents a section of Northern Virginia.
“If you think about it, mental health, behavioral health, addictions, those kinds of things are what they really need support for,” Hope said. “So the question then becomes, is this in the right agency?”
Hope explained that convicted minors in the system already receive support from health and human resources and that his efforts would leave no presumption about what will happen after the study.
“Let’s get the right stakeholders together,” Hope said. “Let’s get the right agencies together. Are we funding this appropriately? Do we have the right resources in the right places? It’s just a conversation.
Slater added that the measure would also remove communication barriers between several agencies working to rehabilitate minors. However, after the bill passed the House of Delegates and the state Senate with bipartisan support, Governor Youngkin vetoed it.
“My heart collapsed,” recalls Valérie. “It was a little devastating.”
In his veto explanation, the governor pointed to an increase in crime since COVID-19 hit, and in order to keep schools safe, he said young offenders must be held accountable and given resources to reintegrate into society.
“We must work to make our schools safer, and the rehabilitation services offered by the Department of Juvenile Justice under the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security ensure that young people who commit violent crimes are held responsible and given the resources and education they need to fully and permanently reintegrate into society,” Governor Youngkin wrote.
Republican Senator Amanda Chase, who voted against the bill, agreed with the governor.
“We need to make sure that students are protected and that we don’t allow violent students to be kicked out of these school systems,” Sen. Chase said.
Chase also pointed to two incidents of sexual assault at Loudoun County public schools and said not enough was done to prevent it from happening.
“We have to make sure it makes sense,” Chase said. “We need to protect the public safety of everyday people, especially our students who are in school. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.”
A 2021 report by the nonpartisan group JLARC, which oversees state government operations, found that the number of youths in Virginia’s juvenile justice system had dropped dramatically over the past decade, from from around 9,500 in 2011 to less than 3,000 in 2021.
However, the same study showed that detention centers are ill-equipped with effective rehabilitation programs and are unlikely to prevent young people from re-offending once released.
Slater said putting all of these rehab resources under the same umbrella as health and human resources would make a significant difference.
“It would be a real paradigm shift in how we even see struggling children,” she said.
Hope told CBS 6 he never had a chance to sit down with the governor and talk about the potential impacts of his bill.
“This is the conversation you and I are having right now, I would have loved to have it with the governor if he had given me the opportunity to voice my concerns and talk about the purpose of this legislation. “, said Hope. “I think he would have seen the importance of having this task force and this study.”
Governor Youngkin wrote in his veto that he did not believe a study was necessary and that if lawmakers wanted to transfer the agency, they should simply introduce legislation to that effect.
CBS 6 asked the governor’s office if it would support a transfer from the Department of Juvenile Justice without review. A spokesperson did not answer the question directly and instead redirected CBS 6 to the governor’s veto.
Meanwhile, Hope said he wouldn’t feel comfortable moving the agency without a formal search first. He added that he did not believe there would be enough votes to override the governor’s veto.
“I hope the governor and the secretaries of Health and Human Resources and Public Safety and Homeland Security will join me in the off session to have these conversations,” Hope said.
Slater has vowed to continue fighting for at-risk children.
“It’s not just that moment when you made that bad decision. We’re not going to just focus on that. We’re going to address all the issues in your life to make sure the recurrence doesn’t happen because we’ve created true healing for this child,” she said.