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Adults common in juvenile facilities

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than a quarter of offenders in West Virginia's juvenile detention facilities are actually young adults.

State law keeps many juvenile offenders in the custody of the Division of Juvenile Services system until they're 21 years old. That might need to change, said Denny Dodson, deputy director of the division.

"We either need to change the code or have separate facilities . . ." Dodson said in a recent interview with the Daily Mail.

There's no policy to keep adult and juvenile offenders separate in the facilities. At one point, advocates said it was good to mix offenders of different ages, Dodson said.

"We took some heat in trying to keep them separate. Obviously, we're taking some heat for not keeping them separate now."

A judge recently called the idea into question during a hearing about safety at the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, a juvenile corrections facility for sexual offenders and others.

A 20-year-old sexual offender faces charges for allegedly forcing a 15-year-old offender to perform a sexual act. The alleged assault came up during the hearing as one of many different safety concerns at the center.

Mercer Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn has ordered the facility be closed. In discussing part of his reasoning, he mentioned the idea of housing adult sex offenders with juvenile offenders.

"I'd be shocked if you could find someone to say that's a good idea," Aboulhosn said. "It's a bad idea. It's a terrible idea. It's horrific to think that that's going on."

It's a dilemma facing the juvenile justice system in the state, corrections officials say.

After the ruling, Secretary Joe Thornton of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety pointed to state code. The law says the court that adjudicates a juvenile keeps jurisdiction over that person until he or she turns 21.

As of earlier this month, 65 of the 256 male and female offenders in juvenile detention centers were 18 or older, according to data Thornton provided.

There are 59 men in the system who are 18 or older. Most are 18 or 19. Five are 20. Of the offenders who are juveniles, most are 15 to 17. There are 29 who are 14 or younger, including three 12-year-olds.

It was worse when the Industrial Home for Youth was open, Dodson said.

"I had about double the number of adults than I had juveniles. And it's a juvenile facility," Dodson said.

The state closed the Industrial home in March in the midst of lengthy court proceedings and orders for sweeping changes at the facility.

Those housed at the facility when it was open included "committed" offenders. That means they were found guilty of a crime, sentenced and undergoing rehabilitation services, Thornton explained.

Right now, 53 of the 92 committed offenders are 18 or older, according to data Thornton provided.

Officials constantly monitor all offenders, Dodson said: Corrections officers make sure older, bigger or "more sophisticated" offenders aren't bullying others.

But incidents do happen. If there's an assault or something illegal happens, Dodson said the division pursues legal action.

That can lead to odd incarceration circumstances. An adult incarcerated as a juvenile and housed in a juvenile facility can be sent to an adult prison if he or she commits a crime while living in the juvenile facility. The offender can serve his or her time in adult prison and then return to the juvenile facility, Dodson said.

"I've had kids that were committed, transferred to adult status in adult court, found guilty, sentenced to 40 years, then they turn 18 (and) they're kept in the juvenile system because they're working on a GED or doing so well. . . ." Dodson said.

Juvenile corrections facilities are required to focus on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. That's part of the rationale for bringing back adult offenders originally convicted as juveniles who commit new crimes, Dodson said.  

That doesn't mean officers necessarily like it: Dodson said officers are frequently frustrated when problematic adult offenders return to juvenile facilities. It's bad for safety and morale, but it's the law, he said.

The law needs to change, he said.

"I do feel like something can be done to change the code," he said.

Lydia Milnes is an attorney with Mountain State Justice, the Charleston-based law firm that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Industrial home offenders that eventually led to the changes.

She didn't say the law needs to change and believes there are some circumstances where mixing adult and juvenile offenders isn't always a problem. But she's certain mixing adult sex offenders with the juvenile "wellness" offenders - those with behavioral or mental issues - played a role in the safety concerns at the Jones center.

"I would hope that in a new facility they would return to the practice of separating out these populations," Milnes said.

On Friday, Thornton said the state is getting closer to finding a new location for the offenders at the Jones center.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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