CHARLESTON -- State Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Workman announced Monday the creation of the Adjudicated Juvenile Rehabilitation Review Commission to investigate juvenile justice facilities and procedures in the state.
The commission was established to look into the Feb. 23, 2009 death of Benjamin Hill at the Industrial Home for Youth in Salem, the state's only maximum security correctional facility for juveniles, and the Honey Rubenstein Center in Davis.
Hill, 19, died as a result of undetermined causes, according to an autopsy by the state Medical Examiner's Office. He entered the facility when he was 15 after pleading guilty to third-degree sexual assault.
Although the scope of the commission's work initially will focus on the two locations, it will expand its review to other facilities operated by the Division of Juvenile Services and the Department of Health and Human Resources if it deems it necessary, said Workman, who will personally lead the commission.
The commission then will report its findings to the state Supreme Court.
"It is my hope that the report of this Adjudicated Juvenile Rehabilitation Review Commission can be used by the legislative and executive branches to improve the system of rehabilitation of adjudicated juveniles, and that no further action by the Court will be warranted," the chief justice said in a statement.
Workman was leading the Court in a study of juvenile justice issues for more than a year before deciding to create a commission for a larger, multi-disciplinary review. "We had to be very concerned to move in this direction. I think it's in order, and it's time for us to do it," she said of the move.
The chief justice said she wants to work cooperatively with the other branches. However, she noted, if the commission finds a high number of systemic irregularities, the Court has the option of appointing a special master or receiver to oversee the state's juvenile justice system.
"It's really up to the whole Court," she explained.
"While these juveniles are sent to the custody of the Division of Juvenile Services, their cases remain open for judicial review. Thus, judges have a special interest in how these adjudicated juveniles are being disciplined, how they are being educated, and how they are being rehabilitated," Workman wrote in a letter to those individuals appointed to the commission.
They include: Supreme Court Administrative Director Steve Canterbury, the former executive director of the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority; Circuit Judge Gary Johnson of the Twenty-Eighth Judicial Circuit in Nicholas County, who also is the chairman of the Court Improvement Program Board; Circuit Judge J. Lewis Marks, Jr., of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit in Harrison County; Judge Jeffrey B. Reed of the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Wood and Wirt counties, the former chairman of the Court Improvement Program Board; Jefferson County Magistrate Gail C. Boober; Cindy Largent-Hill, the former director of the Division of Juvenile Services and current director of programs for Timber Ridge Schools; The Rev. Mr. Rue Thompson, director for State Facilities, Holy Rosary Parish; Attorney Jane Moran, an original member of the Juvenile Justice Committee in the 1980s and current member of the Court Improvement Program Board; Megan Annitto, director of the Center for Law and Public Service at West Virginia University College of Law; and Sam Hickman, chief executive officer, National Association of Social Workers, West Virginia chapter.
"Of all of the cases that face a judge, none strike at the heart more than those involving juveniles in trouble. When an offender, therefore, is sent to the state's secure facility for adjudicated juveniles in Salem, the Industrial Home for Youth, the judge places faith in that facility's programs and its operations to offer opportunities for the juvenile to turn his or her life around and to leave the facility with the best possible hope of a successful, productive, crime-free life," Workman continued in her letter.
"Unfortunately, during the last few years, a number of incidents have been reported that have caused judges and justices to be concerned if the best programs for positive outcomes are actually being instituted. The assaults, the apparent lack of segregation of very young offenders from older offenders, and -- most troubling of all -- the still undetermined death of juvenile resident Benjamin Hill have filled news reports as recently as this immediate past weekend.
"The hope of the future of West Virginia is, of course, our children. That hope, frankly, must include all of our children, not only the honor roll students but those youths who are in the adjudication process. The cost to the state of every juvenile whom we fail to rehabilitate can not only be measured in the millions of dollars, but in destroyed lives and lost dreams. We must act, therefore, for the good of the entire state."
Workman said rehabilitating juveniles is not only a humanitarian endeavor, but it also makes good fiscal sense. Every youth who is deterred from committing a crime saves the state money that otherwise would be spent on prosecution and incarceration, she explained.
Children in custody are wards of the court, she said, and it ultimately is the judicial system's responsibility to make sure they are safe, educated and rehabilitated.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at email@example.com.