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City partnership aims to reform juvenile justice system

Charlottesville is changing the way it looks at juvenile discipline and probation.

The city is one of seven jurisdictions across the country that was selected to participate in a juvenile probation transformation project with the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. On Monday, the City Council received a report on the progress the project has made in the past year.

“It is all about relationship building and not so much [about] compliance and surveillance. And while we prioritize public safety and it is a priority for our initiatives, we really place a high priority also on serving our young people through relationships and community-based organization building,” said Opal West, program associate for the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group Center for Systems Innovation with the Casey foundation.

This is a planned multi-year project with technical assistance and support provided by the foundation for at least two years. The foundation supports projects aimed at uplifting at-risk youth.

Implementation partners include community-based organizations and schools, including the Conscious Capitalist Foundation. They are launching two work groups to increase meaningful family engagement and to create increased opportunities for police-initiated system diversions.

Representatives from the 16th Judicial District, Charlottesville Police Department, the city’s human services department and the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice are part of the local project team.

Focus groups with families and youth involved, or previously involved, in the juvenile justice system are part of the planning phases. Equity and family engagement are underlying components throughout the transformation process.

West said there are two pillars to the foundation’s vision: diversion and probation.

“We know that diversion is severely underutilized throughout our country, across the board. And we believe that over 60% of young people who come into contact with the [prison] system can be better served by diversion,” she said.

West said this can be done through community-led programs that focus on lifting young people up and helping them to build positive relationships.

She said probation should only be reserved for more extreme cases.

“If young people are not involved in the system, they are more likely to be successful throughout their lives,” she said.

West said that in cases where probation is needed, it can be more effective if probation officers are only handling eight to 10 cases each. One of the program’s goals is to limit caseloads per officer.

“Then they can spend that quality time, their expertise, their knowledge on the young people who actually need probation,” she said.

The project also is focused on analyzing how race plays a role in the system and how racial equity can be achieved.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation assisted the Charlottesville team in delivering five interactive learning sessions that outlined the overall need for transformative work around probation, local data driving community partners to engage in this process and what steps are needed to start making positive impacts to the local system.

The purpose of the sessions was to examine current policies and practices of probation and the system in general, and together propose solutions for better outcomes.

There were an average of 90 participants per session, which included juvenile justice staff and administration, school representatives, community partners, service providers and interested residents.

Workgroups focused on family engagement, reducing technical violations and developing a statement of purpose for probation and expanded diversion practices are currently being formed.

At the moment, participation in the program is not costing the city anything, though partial funding is a possibility in the future.


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