Virginia’s struggle to reform its juvenile justice system took a big step with the closure of a 127-year-old youth facility. But as the state governor’s race heats up, advocates want the focus to be on alternatives to youth incarceration.
Death and prison are common for youths in the Virginia Beach community where Jalen Mizell was born.
Mizell was locked up at the age of 14, when he was arrested for participation in two separate armed robberies—putting an abrupt end to a trajectory that seemed to promise an escape from the fate that had fallen so many of his peers. His 2010 arrest and conviction happened just as he was preparing to enter high school.
Seven years later, Mizell has been given a new lease on life. Released in August from the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, the state’s only remaining maximum-security juvenile prison, he is now preparing to enter the Richard Bland College of William & Mary in January.
What accounted for his turnaround? Mizell left detention with 24 college credits under his belt, thanks to an overhaul of Virginia’s juvenile justice system that, among other things, made college courses available to youth detained at correctional facilities.
The juvenile reforms, backed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) shortly after his 2014 election, have attracted national attention as well as tempered praise from juvenile justice advocates, who say the state still has a long way to go to catch up to the reforms underway elsewhere.
During McAuliffe’s four-year tenure (under Virginia’s term limits, he cannot run for reelection this year), the population of youths incarcerated at the state’s two juvenile prisons, Bon Air and Beaumont, dropped from about 600 to a little more than 200.
In the campaign now under way, gubernatorial candidates Ed Gillespie (R) and his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, have debated further criminal justice reform in the state, including proposals to alter Virginia’s felony threshold and marijuana laws.
Until June, when Beaumont was shuttered, the two institutions were the last remaining youth facilities in the country with 200 beds or more. But even as the closure of the 127-year-old Beaumont facility was welcomed by advocates, Virginia announced it was planning to build a new one in the city of Chesapeake.
The Joint Juvenile Justice Center, scheduled for completion in 2020, would house 112 beds in a facility divided between state and city detainees. The state portion is expected to support 64 juveniles and the city 48.
Valerie Slater, an attorney and lead coordinator at RISE for Youth and a close observer of Virginia’s juvenile justice system, calls the planned new facility an “unfortunate transition.”
“We should be moving away from larger facilities as a whole,” she said.
RISE, a Charlottesville, Va.-based advocacy group, joins other youth advocacy groups around the country in advocating alternatives to youth incarceration.
Slater pointed to Massachusetts as a “cutting-edge” model, noting that the state offers some facilities with as few as 15 beds. Those smaller facilities provide much greater attention to detainees, particularly the individuals needing the most attention, she said.
The kind of punishment meted out to Mizell and other youths is almost a guarantee that they will “graduate” from juvenile detention into a criminal career.
Mizell is the first to recognize how easily his life path could have been grimly different. In a recent interview, Mizell counted at least four people he’s known who have died, and it would be impossible to tally the number of his acquaintances who have been incarcerated.
Now a polite but determined 21-year-old, he gave a talk to Bon Air’s 200-plus remaining residents shortly before his release—adding a special note of thanks to the counselors and teachers who helped him.
“I honestly feel like the only way to repay you is to be a success story, and that’s exactly what I’ll do,” he promised.
But for most of those he left behind, juvenile prison still amounts to a door shutting on their lives at a young age.
Although the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) now contracts with two service coordinators—Tampa, Fla.-based nonprofit AMIkids and Washington, D.C.-based contractor Evidence Based Associates—for social service counseling that can help at-risk youth avoid jail, advocates like Slater say the state has not yet moved far enough away from antiquated models that shuffle large youth populations into prison.
The population of juvenile prisoners is dropping across the state. In addition to Bon Air, the Virginia houses youths in 24 juvenile detention centers and 18 group homes. The state’s average daily population, according to DJJ, dwindled from 1,164 in 2003 to 406 in 2016, a 65 percent decrease.
That matches a trend across the country: juvenile arrests have declined nationally from 28,817 in 2012 to 19,620 in 2016.
There’s a similar decline in youth arrests. According to the Department of Justice, U.S. law enforcement in 2015 arrested 921,600 people under the age of 18—56 percent less than the number recorded in 2006. That 2015 figure comes out to a mean average of about 18,400 arrests per state.
Virginia remains slightly above the mean. The state recorded 20,417 juvenile arrests that same year.
Crystal Shin, an assistant law professor at the University of Virginia, said in a recent interview that the incarceration decline can partly be attributed to DJJ altering its length-of-stay guidelines, so that youths are not incarcerated beyond “the necessary time to receive appropriate treatment and services.”
Nevertheless, as Slater noted, Virginia’s African-American youths are still six times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. Though blacks make up about 20 percent of Virginia’s youth population, they accounted for about 71 percent of all juvenile correctional center admissions in 2016, according to DJJ.
“Black and brown children are so much more likely to be shuffled through the system and on into the adult system, where their white counterparts are often given chance after chance after chance,” Slater said. “We’ve just got to do better.”
For young people like Mizell, the combination of difficult childhood and the influence of peers is hard to overcome.
Mizell, who now lives with his aunt, said that he committed the robbery that sent him to prison because he and his mother didn’t have any money. But he also concedes that street life was a powerful pull.
“There’s always temptation, you know,” he said. “You want to get easy money, but ultimately it’s better if you just do it legit. …
“You’ve got to know when to leave or know when to get away from all that because you can easily be sucked back into a bad situation, just being around the wrong people, so you’ve got to be smart.”
The same temptations were waiting for him when he was released, he admitted. He still sees friends from before he was incarcerated, though there are people he can’t speak to “by default.”
But, he added, “I really don’t want to go back to any kind of institution, at all, ever.”
As he contemplates his college career, Mizell is weighing a number of potential majors: sports journalism, physical therapy, sports medicine and most recently cyber security.
The military is another option: his uncle has offered to help him enlist in the Marines.
Mizell was asked what he would say to his 14-year-old self, if given the chance.
“No matter how hard the situation is, always follow your heart,” he said. “If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it; and listen to your parents.
“And stay in school, too. Please.”
Karl Herchenroeder is a freelancer based in Washington, D.C. He specializes in reporting about national issues, regional issues, crime and politics.