CHARLESTON, WV (WOAY) – Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, today said a bill that unanimously passed the House of Delegates this week will offer new opportunities for rehabilitation to West Virginia juvenile offenders, which could potentially keep them out of the criminal justice system later in life.
The House on Tuesday passed House Bill 4670, which updates and expands the provisions of the state’s juvenile restorative justice program. Delegate Graves sponsored the legislation along with House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor; Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson; and Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley.
“In West Virginia, too many of our young people feel like their lives are irrevocably destroyed from mistakes they made as kids,” Delegate Graves said. “This is a smart justice reform designed to keep our kids from falling into the endless trap of cycling in and out of jail for the rest of their lives.”
Restorative justice, as defined by the bill, incorporates evidence-based practices into a community-based program designed to help the offender understand the harm their actions impose on the victim and community. It also organizes processes in which the offender, individual crime victims, and other community members work together to find constructive resolutions.
As part of the process of repairing harm from the juvenile’s offense, the program would implement measures designed to provide redress to the victim and community, including, but not limited to: restitution to the victim, restitution to the community, services for the victim or the community, or any other reasonable sanction intended to provide restitution to the victim or the community.
“The Legislature and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin introduced this concept in West Virginia as part of their juvenile justice reinvestment efforts back in 2015, but this bill significantly reforms the program and builds upon it,” Delegate Graves said. “It significantly expands who can qualify for the program and how they can be referred to it, plus it implements better guidelines to ensure its success.”
Delegate Graves said she was inspired to work on the bill after attending a lecture last summer by Dr. Kenneth Lang, a former cop and current assistant professor of criminal justice at Glenville State College.
“Dr. Lang has a tremendous passion for this program, and one statistic he discussed really stuck with me,” Delegate Graves said. “He said when Colorado implemented this program, they saw a 76-percent reduction in recidivism among youth who completed it.
“That truly amazed me, and I said, ‘We should take what’s working there and try to do it here,’ because even if we only saw half of that kind of success here in West Virginia, it would radically change the lives of thousands of young people,” she said. “That is something that could radically change the future of West Virginia.”
Many of the provisions of House Bill 4670 were based on language from Colorado’s pilot program. It says a judge or prosecuting attorney can refer a juvenile offender to the program at any point where they deem it to be a benefit. If the juvenile has not been through the program before, and successfully completes the program, they will have the case against them dismissed.
The bill passed on a 98-0 vote, which Delegate Graves said was not surprising given the broad support for the concept.
“When you have groups as diverse as the ACLU, American Friends Service Committee and Americans for Prosperity joining together to endorse this bill as being great for the state, it demonstrates that this is a phenomenal idea,” she said.
She also said this could help turn the tide of the state’s low labor force participation by keeping more young West Virginians on the path to being productive members of society.
“This is workforce development,” Delegate Graves said. “If we can help these young, impressionable children learn from their mistakes and get back on the path of being a productive citizen – instead of spending money locking them up in jail time and time again – then what a difference that could make in not only that child’s life, but West Virginia’s future.”
House Bill 4670 is now pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee for further consideration.