Prince William County’s Social Services Department is recommending reducing the size of a proposed new youth jail to replace the existing youth jail after months of pushback from local activists.
The new jail is proposed as part of a $43.6 million juvenile services center that also includes a new youth shelter to replace the county’s existing Molinari Juvenile Shelter. Located in Manassas, the Molinari shelter provides a “non-secure, residential alternative” for youth who have not been charged with criminal offense, according to the county website.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors’ proposed fiscal year 2022 budget dedicates $3 million to the design of the new youth jail in the board’s capital improvements program.
Social Services Director Courtney Tierney said at the supervisors’ Tuesday, March 9 work session that the department is recommending reducing the number of beds in the facility’s design from 48 to 32.
“While the planning study recommended 48 beds, we believe this is still too big,” Tierney said.
The department of social services conducted a planning study in 2018 that initially determined the new juvenile jail would need at least 48 beds, a reduction from the current facility’s 72 beds. But since 2018, the number of youths being held at the county’s existing facility has fallen dramatically as a result of criminal justice reforms being implemented at the state level, as well as juvenile justice reforms implemented at the local level since 2020 by Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth.
The population was further reduced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as prosecutors and defense attorneys rushed to get people out of the county’s carceral facilities.
As of Tuesday, March 9, only 10 youths were being held in the Prince William County Juvenile Detention Facility, Tierney said.
A survey conducted by Annie E. Casey Foundation in April 2020 found that the population of youth jails nationwide fell by 24% at the beginning of the pandemic, bringing the country’s incarcerated youth population to its lowest level in decades.
But the survey also found that, for those jurisdictions that were surveyed, the share of Black youths being detained had risen sharply compared to those of other races and ethnicities after the pandemic began.
“Racial and ethnic disparities have worsened as White youth were released at a faster rate than their non-White peers,” the report said.
In Prince William, data from the youth jail show a similar trend. During 2018, 44% of the detained youth at the jail were African American, 36% were Hispanic, 13% were White and less than 1% were Asian, according to county staff. Now, of the 10 youths currently held in the county's youth jail, six are Black, three are Hispanic, one is Asian, and none are White, Tierney said.
The new youth jail has been sharply criticized by a small group of county activists who say the county should not dedicate new funds to incarcerating local youth before taking steps to provide better access to diversion programs and mental health services.
The plan for a new jail also faced headwinds when county staff presented the project to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice Board last September. The project was narrowly approved 3-2. Several of the state board members, including several who voted in favor of it, questioned whether the size of the proposed facility was appropriate given recent juvenile justice reforms that aim to keep children and teens out of jails whenever possible.
The existing jail, which was built in 1972, is in dire need of updating, however, according to county staff. The existing facility can hold up to 72 youth detainees. County officials have said in the past that the jail was built to look and feel like an adult detention center. The building is also in need of maintenance and repairs due to its old age.
The new facility will use a “trauma-informed” design that includes more access to windows and outdoor space for children and teens held in the facility, Tierney said.
Tierney said Virginia currently has a moratorium on funding the construction of any new adult or youth jails or prisons. But she said the county could seek a waiver to the rule in an effort to receive a 50% reimbursement for the project from the Virginia General Assembly in the spring 2022.
Once the county gets approval from the Virginia General Assembly, the county can complete the design of the facility, allowing construction to begin as early as 2023. The facility is proposed to be occupied by 2025, Tierney said.
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