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Governor vetoes bill to study public health approach to juvenile justice: 'My heart dropped'

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Posted at 5:26 PM, Apr 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-18 17:41:21-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Anti-violence activists said they're disappointed in Governor Glenn Youngkin's rejection of a measure they said would take a step toward reforming the juvenile justice system and reduce cycles of violence among young people.

The past week in Central Virginia, communities have mourned the loss of two teenagers who lost their lives to gun violence: 17-year-old Semiyah Yellardy in Richmond and 16-year-old Jaheim Dickerson in Henrico County. In Dickerson's case, police said a minor has been arrested and charged.

“Kids have experienced a lot. Their worlds were upended, and they're experiencing trauma," said Valerie Slater, executive director of the non-profit Rise For Youth.

Slater said while she's alarmed by a spike in crime committed among youth, she's not surprised.

“We’re coming out of a pandemic," she said. "The way you respond to children who are living through trauma is you bring in health responses, bring in mental health providers."

Now more than ever, Slater said children desperately need mental health support, especially those who live in neighborhoods at higher risk of experiencing violence.

That's why Slater supports a shift in oversight of the agency responsible for Virginia's youngest offenders. A bill introduced in the 2022 General Assembly aimed to potentially start that process.

House Bill 1197 called for a study into the possible benefits of transferring the Department of Juvenile Justice from the purview of the Secretariat of Public Safety and Homeland Security to the Secretariat of Health and Human Resources.

"This was a piece of legislation that was literally going to begin a conversation to shift 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, substance abuse, those kinds of things are what they really need support on," Hope said. "So the question then becomes, is it in the right agency?"

Hope explained that convicted minors in the system already receive support from Health and Human Resources and his effort wouldn't make any presumptions of what would happen after the study.

"Let's bring the right stakeholders together," Hope said. "Let's bring 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 the measure would also remove communication barriers between multiple agencies working to rehabilitate minors. However, after the bill passed the House of Delegates and State Senate with bipartisan support, Governor Youngkin vetoed it.

“My heart dropped," Valerie recalled. "It was a little devastating.”

In his veto explanation, the governor pointed to a rise in crime since COVID-19 hit, and in order to keep schools safe, he said youth offenders must be held accountable and given resources to reenter society.

"We must work to make our schools safer, and the rehabilitative services offered by the Department of Juvenile Justice under the purview of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security ensures young people who commit violent crimes are held accountable and given the resources and education they need to fully and permanently reenter society," Governor Youngkin wrote.

Republican Senator Amanda Chase, who voted against the bill, agreed with the governor.

"We have to make sure students are protected and that we don't allow violent student offenders to be released back into these school systems," Senator Chase said.

Chase also pointed to two sexual assault incidents within Loudoun County Public Schools and said not enough was done to prevent it from happening.

"We have to make sure that it makes sense," Chase said. "We have to protect the public safety of everyday average, people, especially our students who are in school. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work."

A 2021 report by the nonpartisan group, JLARC, which provides oversight to state government operations found the number of youth in Virginia's Juvenile Justice System dropped dramatically over the past ten years, from about 9,500 in 2011 to fewer than 3,000 in 2021.

However, the same study showed detention centers are ill-equipped with effective rehabilitative programs and are unlikely to reduce youth from recommitting crimes once released

Slater said putting all those rehabilitative resources under the same umbrella as Health and Human Resources would make a significant difference.

“It would be a true paradigm shift in the way we even view children that are in trouble," she said.

Hope told CBS 6 he never got 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 had it with the governor had he given me the opportunity to express my concerns and talk about what the purpose of this legislation," Hope said. "I think he would have seen the importance of having this workgroup and this study."

Governor Youngkin wrote in his veto he didn't think a study was necessary and if lawmakers wanted to transfer the agency, they should just introduce legislation directing as such.

CBS 6 asked the governor's office if he would support a transfer of the Department of Juvenile Justice without a study. A spokesperson did not directly answer the question and instead redirected CBS 6 to the governor's veto.

Meanwhile, Hope said he wouldn't feel comfortable moving the agency without formal research first. He added he doesn't believe there will be enough votes to override the governor's veto.

"I hope that the governor and the secretaries of Health and Human Resources and Public Safety and Homeland Security will join me on the off session to have these conversations," Hope said.

Slater vowed to keep fighting for at-risk children.

“It isn't just this moment in time where you made this bad decision. We're not going to focus solely there. We're going to address every issue in your life to ensure that recidivism doesn't happen because we have created true healing for this child," she said.

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