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Teen pushes for changes to juvenile justice after Youngkin vetoes bill to study reform

Teen pushes for changes to juvenile justice after Youngkin vetoes bill to study reform
Posted at 8:10 PM, Apr 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-26 20:10:35-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Central Virginia continues to see a rise in young people committing and falling victim to crimes, activists are speaking out about an urgent need to reform the Commonwealth's juvenile justice system.

A majority of state lawmakers supported researching a new approach to addressing court-involved children, but Governor Glenn Youngkin shot it down. However, advocates hope the governor's decision can be overturned.

Tuesday afternoon, Antoine Anderson sat down for a pep talk with his football coach who he called a mentor of his.

“One thing I love to do is play football. That’s my favorite sport," Anderson said. “I want somebody to push me and tell me, 'You got this. Don’t give up.'”

Anderson considers the football field at Bellemeade Community Center his second home. He said it's a place where he can clear his mind and work through his emotions.

“It helps to keep things out of my head that I don't want in there," Anderson said. "Sports will definitely get your head off of negative things.”

The 14-year-old student at Boushall Middle School has grown up in South Richmond his whole life which he said has come with plenty of challenges.

“I grew up around a bad environment," Anderon said. “You really have to have the mindset of getting out of Richmond, because if you hang around the wrong group, you potentially mess up your life.”

It's an experience Anderson knows firsthand. Recently, he said he got into trouble after running away from home. The court placed him under supervision on an ankle monitor for a month. It came off Friday.

Anderson described his time with an ankle monitor as difficult.

“It was real hard trying to keep your cool because a lot of people will stereotype you just from looks," he said. “But if I had another chance without having that on my leg, I would've definitely done better just to prove I'm not a bad kid like they think I am."

Valerie Slater, with the non-profit Rise For Youth, said Anderson's experience with the juvenile justice system speaks to a larger issue concerning how children in trouble are treated and viewed across the state.

“We've got to look at the communities that they're from. We've got to look at the education that they're receiving. We've got to look at all of the things impacting their lives," she said. "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."

Slater has been pushing to move Virginia's Department of Juvenile Justice from the Secretariat of Public Safety and Homeland Security to the Secretariat of Health and Human Resources. She claimed it would improve mental health treatment and trauma support for court-involved youth.

The Chief Engagement Officer for Richmond Public Schools, Dr. Shadae Harris, also supported the bill.

In a letter to lawmakers, she wrote, "As of 2020, over 90% of youth incarcerated in Virginia required mental health services, and more than 70% of youth entering youth prisons demonstrated significant symptoms of a mental health disorder at the time of admission."

Dr. Harris added, "We know our current system is not working."

A bill that passed the general assembly with bipartisan support aimed to study the possible impacts of transferring the agency. However, Governor Youngkin vetoed it.

In his reasoning why, the governor said, “We must work to make our schools safer."

He added the current rehabilitative services offered under the umbrella of Public Safety and Homeland Security, “ensure young people who commit violent crimes are held accountable and given the resources and education they need to fully and permanently reenter society.”

A 2021 review by Virginia's nonpartisan government watchdog group, JLARC, found juvenile detention centers were ill-equipped with effective rehabilitative programs and were unlikely to prevent youth from recommitting crimes once released.

Between 2016 and 2018, the report showed that 68% of youth released from a program were reconvicted within two years.

CBS 6 reached out to several lawmakers who voted against the bill including Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert, Delegate Nick Freitas, and Delegate John McGuire, but they were unavailable for an interview or did not respond to the inquiry.

Last week, Republican Senator Amanda Chase told CBS 6 she stood by the governor's veto.

"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."

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

State lawmakers have a chance to override the governor's veto Wednesday with the general assembly reconvenes, but both chambers need a two-thirds majority. The House originally voted Yes 64-35. The Senate voted Yes 32-7.

As Anderson said he continues to learn from his mistakes, he hopes for a brighter future for himself and other kids in his community.

“I have grown a lot. The bad things that I think of doing, I don't do," he said. “It doesn't matter where you come from, a bad environment or not, you can be something different, and you can stand out.”

Moving forward, Anderson said he wants to keep working on his football skills and potentially get into real estate one day.

"You can be the first one to ever go to college. You don't have to have everything repeating. You can also do whatever you want and do something that's positive at the same time," he said.

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