Virginia has received national attention in recent years for shifting its approach to juvenile justice from a punitive, carceral system to a more rehabilitative, restorative, and community-based model. The bipartisan passage of HB 1197 continues this trajectory by establishing a stakeholder workgroup to initiate the transfer of the Department of Juvenile Justice from under the Secretary of Public Safety & Homeland Security to the Secretary of Health & Human Services, where all other youth-serving agencies reside. Governor Youngkin’s veto of this bill will only serve to perpetuate a broken system designed to cage children and have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown youth. The Governor’s justification relies on a “rising youth crime” narrative that ignores the trauma imposed upon our children by the pandemic, while also dismissing the adverse childhood experiences and negative social determinants of health that foster contacts with the youth justice system.
Legal Aid Justice Center stands in solidarity with RISE for Youth in asking the Virginia General Assembly to override Governor Youngkin’s veto of this pivotal legislation. Virginia’s youth are not simply “tiny adults” in need of punishment. In passing HB 1197, the General Assembly has already acknowledged that focusing resources only on punishment and detention are ineffective. Rather, understanding that juvenile crime is a symptom and treating its underlying causes – by emphasizing the importance of mental health supports, trauma recovery, and educational resources – is most effective at preventing recidivism. It is now time for our legislature to fully abandon this failed model and champion a public health approach to youth justice.