CHARLESTON – West Virginia leaders must convince the U.S. Department of Justice that they can prevent racial discrimination in juvenile justice or they will lose a portion of their federal funds.
By March 31, Gov. Joe Manchin's civil rights advisers and state court administrators must submit a plan to eliminate ethnic disparities in juvenile justice.
Federal law prohibits "disproportionate minority contact" in courts and requires each state to submit a compliance plan every three years. States that don't comply can lose 20 percent of their federal funding for juvenile justice programs.
West Virginia's current plan doesn't comply, according to Jennifer Singletary, special projects director for state courts.
The Department of Justice hasn't penalized West Virginia, but state leaders don't want to run the risk of submitting a faulty plan for the next three years.
Singletary said the governor's civil rights advisory group and court administrators worked on the plan all day on Feb. 10 and part of the next day.
"You have to not only report on the numbers but you also have to have a plan," she said.
Louann Petts, coordinator of disproportionate minority contact efforts for the state courts administration, leads the planning effort.
"I feel confident that I am ready to finalize my plan," she said. "I have some initiatives that I want to pursue."
She said, "There are a lot of good ideas that are being thrown around."
She said the governor's civil rights advisers have focused on law enforcement as the first contact in juvenile justice.
Singletary has applied for a grant to buy new curriculum for training court employees about bias. Past training efforts haven't always improved attitudes, she said.
"People get defensive if you say, your thinking isn't right," she said. "People don't just decide to be biased."
She said, "We are going from, 'Everyone is the same' to, 'No we're not and that is a wonderful thing and you have strengths that I don't have.'"
If she doesn't get the grant, she said, she will create new curriculum on her own.
She said she hopes the new Equal Access to Justice Commission of the Supreme Court of Appeals will include a subcommittee on juvenile justice.
In the 1990s, state legislators authorized and then shut down a committee that pressed for fairness in juvenile justice.
A legislative audit in 1995 found that the committee performed essential functions, but an audit in 1996 found that it intruded on executive branch functions.
The Legislature dissolved the committee in 1997.
In 2001, an outside study found that West Virginia ranked worst in the nation in three measures of minority overrepresentation in juvenile justice.
Author Carol Sharlip wrote that while African-American youth comprised 4 percent of the juvenile population, they represented 18 percent of youth placed in detention.
The report prompted former Supreme Court Justice Franklin Cleckley and four other lawyers to file with the Court a "petition for promulgation of rules and standards to ensure equal treatment in West Virginia's juvenile justice system."
They wrote, "Racial disparities pervade the gamut of the juvenile justice system in West Virginia, from arrests through prosecutions to sentencing and punishment."
The system "includes hundreds of decision makers who render thousands of decisions, many of which are unreviewable and all of which combine into a fragmented regime in need of systemic and possibly group conscious measures," they wrote.
West Virginia University law professor Bob Bastress, who signed the petition, said the Court created a commission that held hearings and recommended action.
"The Court buried it," he said. "There was no consensus about what to do or whether anything should be done."
He said, "I got the sense they weren't interested."
He said, "The numbers in West Virginia were like five times worse on over representation. It was astonishing."
He said, "The higher up you went in the criminal justice system, the worse the numbers were. There was no ready explanation for that."
He said he was encouraged by Chief Justice Brent Benjamin's creation of a commission on access to justice.
"That's heartening," he said. "I'm glad to hear that."
While Manchin's civil rights advisers write a compliance plan for the Department of Justice, a separate group hammers out a report on the same subject.
The "Task Force to Study Perceived Racial Disparity in the Juvenile Justice System" has completed a draft report with hopes of releasing a final version in May.
The draft calls for elimination of laws and policies that impose disparate impacts.
It recommends integration of training in cultural competence and diversity into all educational programs for court personnel and providers of youth services.
It calls for increasing the number of minorities in the judiciary and decision making positions in juvenile justice.
It states that at every community meeting the task force held, "The lack of minorities in the juvenile justice and social service fields was mentioned."