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Youthful offenders do need humane treatment

WEST Virginia's juvenile justice system for youthful offenders was not supposed to be like prison. But an expert in juvenile justice, Paul DeMuro, found it much like that.

DeMuro was hired by lawyers for Mountain State Justice, which sued the state on behalf of two

inmates who complained of mistreatment. DeMuro found that the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem "fails to comply with widely accepted juvenile justice institutional practices and standards."

On Monday, the state agreed to a partial settlement of the suit, and to make changes to improve conditions and outcomes for juvenile offenders.

The Salem campus includes the Harriet Jones

Center, a maximum-security facility for young male sex offenders. Youths sent there for treatment attend classes and meals in the nearby home.

"Youth in the Harriet Jones Center are routinely subjected to random strip searches," DeMuro told Mercer Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn, whom the state Supreme Court assigned to hear the lawsuit.

"This practice should stop immediately. Strip searches should only be conducted when there is probable cause to believe that a youth has a 'banned' object on his or her person."

DeMuro also found:

  • Excessive use of isolation, which he found particularly inappropriate for youths at risk of suicide.
  • Residents were not allowed to talk during meals.
  • Unit 208, a unit designed to isolate residents from the rest of the population, is as "secure as any discipline or isolation unit I have seen in adult prisons or jails," he said.
  • Youths on suicide watch "are forced to wear a Velcro wrap, eat cold 'finger food' and are locked in isolation cells for most of each day."
  • Some of these things will change as the result of the settlement.

    West Virginians understand the need for safety and security at Salem. It is a maximum-security facility. Some of its residents have committed serious crimes.

    But the public set up the juvenile justice system as an alternative to prison, not an imitator.

    Good people outside and inside the system are investigating and trying to improve the situation. State officials agreed to end the most egregious practices even as the lawsuit continues.

    It is progress - on a front where it is difficult to make some.


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