A proposal to replace Prince William County’s existing juvenile jail with a new facility has won the support of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and sparked a backlash from young county activists in recent months who question the need for a new youth detention center.
Amid the debate, county records show a sharp decrease in the number of youths being detained in the current facility over the last year partly because of the pandemic, but also because of new policies put in place by the county’s progressive Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth, who was elected in November 2019.
The proposed facility has been approved for up to 48 beds and is estimated to cost between $39 and $46 million.
It’s a step down in size from the county’s current 72-bed facility, but the detention center hasn’t held more than 40 detainees since 2018. And since the pandemic, the population has dropped even lower, fluctuating between eight and 19 youth detainees between April and November of this year.
As of the first week of November, only 13 kids were being held in the facility.
In an email Friday, Ashworth said the low population of the juvenile jail can be attributed to several factors including the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted prosecutors and judges to take steps to make sure youth offenders were not placed in congregate settings.
But Ashworth said the steep population drop-off is also an outcome of new county policies put in place by her office that aim to keep kids out of jail whenever possible, and because the county’s juvenile court judges, including two new judges appointed to the bench in 2020, are supportive of those policies.
“We recognize the severe and detrimental impact that incarceration and removal from a home environment can have on juveniles and reserve this type of punishment as a last resort,” Ashworth said.
New changes include the office dedicating two prosecutors to oversee and handle cases involving juvenile offenders and direction from Ashworth to stop automatically certifying juveniles to be treated as adults unless all other avenues of rehabilitation have been attempted.
“Our main focus with juvenile offenders is not only to hold them accountable for their actions, but to take whatever steps necessary to prevent them from becoming adult offenders. This means taking a holistic approach to each and every case that comes within our purview and working with not only the juvenile, but the family and community so that together we can reduce recidivism and keep our community safe,” Ashworth said.
So far, the size of the facility has received no discussion from the Board of County Supervisors, who have unanimously moved the project through the planning process with very little deliberation. Supervisors have largely agreed with county staff that the new facility is needed because the county’s current facility, constructed in 1974, is outdated and looks like an adult jail, while the new building would be built with more space for rehabilitation and educational resources.
New facility's size under debate
Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, said Monday however, that although he supports the project, the 48-bed capacity may be too high given the juvenile justice reforms taking place throughout the commonwealth and locally.
“As we’ve been talking with county staff, we think that the proposed number of 48 might still be a little too high. We’re trying to look at more alternatives to deter youth from getting involved in the criminal justice system,” Boddye said.
Boddye added that he supports the county’s plans for the new facility because it will focus more resources on “trauma-informed” and rehabilitative care for youth detainees than is possible at the county’s current facility, which he said lacks the private space for counseling and one-on-one meetings.
Boddye is hosting a virtual town hall with Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice staff on Monday, Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. regarding the proposed new juvenile jail.
Scott Connelly, vice chair of the Prince William Social Services Advisory Board, said the county and board of supervisors could choose to reduce the size of the jail below the 48-bed capacity it has been approved for.
The social services advisory board, which can make non-binding recommendations to the board of supervisors, discussed reducing the size of the proposed facility to between 20 and 30 beds during their September meeting, Connelly said.
“We definitely don’t need the 72-child capacity that we currently have. But then what is the appropriate number? I don’t think it would be anywhere close to [48 beds]. We haven’t had that many kids in our JDC for many, many years,” Connelly said.
Connelly added that only six to seven youths are being admitted to the facility on a monthly basis in Prince William. But he said that predicting whether that will continue in the future is a “tough dynamic.”
“The difficulty we run into at social services is that we really have no control over the number of kids that come in. It really is in the hands of the judges, what they feel is appropriate. We just need to make sure we’re able to handle someone in the most therapeutic way, the most productive way possible,” Connelly said. “We don’t know what’s coming in the door, but we need to be able to handle every situation.”
The size of the new detention center was also a sticking point for Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice board, which narrowly approved the project 3-2 in September. Several board members took issue with the disparity between the size of the proposed facility and the steady decline in the detention center’s population over time.
Board member Tyren Frazier, the executive director of the Chesterfield Education Foundation, said that “it doesn’t make sense to have a 48-bed facility if you’re going to have less than half that population,” and called it, “a waste of funding.”
Youth activists remain opposed
But as the board prepares to hash out the size and cost of the new facility in the coming months, local and state youth activists are pushing the board to kill the project entirely.
Prince William County Mutual Aid, a local organization advocating for local police and criminal justice reform, and RISE for Youth, a statewide nonprofit organization that advocates for alternatives to youth incarceration, have both said that they do not see any effort by the county to create a smaller and less costly juvenile jail to be an adequate compromise.
“Politicians compromise. We’re citizens of this county. We’re here to say what we think needs to be done,” said Lubna Azmi, 19, a former Prince William County schools' student and an organizer with Prince William County Mutual Aid.
Activists from both organizations contend that jailing youth disproportionately impacts children of color, increases recidivism among youth offenders and is more expensive than using community- and evidence-based alternatives.
Richmond-based RISE for Youth has only just begun organizing against the new facility. The nonprofit has been at the forefront of recent juvenile justice reforms in Virginia, lobbying the Virginia General Assembly for new laws and getting involved in community efforts to close existing youth jails and stop the construction of new ones.
Their efforts include joining community activists to oppose new juvenile jail projects in Isle of Wight County in 2019 and the City of Chesapeake in 2017.
RISE for Youth Executive Director Valerie Slater said Wednesday that the groups biggest concerns about the proposed detention center in Prince William is that the county has not done enough to inform impacted communities about the project and that the project, as proposed, is far too large.
“I would say that decreasing the size is not an acceptable compromise until they have had the appropriate conversation with communities. You’ve got to understand what the needs of the community are before you go building something,” Slater said.
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org