Emily Allen Published

W.Va. House Sends Juvenile Restorative Justice Bill To Senate

Delegate Dianna Graves speaks with Delegate Joe Ellington before floor session on Wednesday, February 24, 2020.

The West Virginia House of Delegates unanimously agreed to advance a bill Wednesday to expand the state’s restorative justice program for juveniles.

Nationally, such programs have demonstrated that by placing young people who have committed a crime face-to-face with the person that they’ve harmed, these juveniles are less likely to commit the same crime twice.

“There’s a veil of anonymity in our criminal justice system, between the victim who’s suffering the impact of the crime and the person who was the offender,” said Del. Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, the bill’s lead sponsor. “When you see how you have either destroyed a life or negatively impacted it in a really significant way … Every single human being has some level of empathy, and it just becomes awakened during that process.”

In West Virginia, the state Department of Health and Human Resources provides funding to two restorative programs — the National Youth Advocate program, which serves 12 counties, and the Juvenile Mediation Program, which works with juveniles in the northern panhandle.

In most juvenile restorative justice programs, victims voluntarily agree to meet with a juvenile who has harmed them. They discuss the crime with a mediator present, and together they come up with a way that the juvenile can offer restitution.

In West Virginia, success in the program can lead to dismissed criminal charges.

According to current West Virginia law, these programs — which also offer mentoring, family counseling and other wraparound services to reduce recidivism — are only available to juveniles facing nonviolent misdemeanor charges.

As long as both victim and juvenile are willing, House Bill 2094 opens the process up to all juveniles, facing any charges — including those for violent crimes.

“I think there’s a natural tendency to be like, ‘violent crimes?’ But it really makes sense,” Graves said. “With the crimes that have the most impact upon a victim, when the perpetrator is confronted with the impact that they’ve had, you know, there’s a kind of deep guilt when you realize what you’ve done to another person.”

West Virginia House Delegates voted to pass House Bill 2094 for juvenile restorative justice on Wednesday, February 24, 2021.

Perry Bennett
West Virginia Legislative Photography
West Virginia House Delegates voted to pass House Bill 2094 for juvenile restorative justice programs on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

While Graves’ bill expands eligibility for participants, it only allows juveniles to participate once.

“This is not going to be a ‘get out of jail free card.’ You cannot continually go through a restorative justice program,” Graves said.

Looking At The Data

Graves said in researching for her bill, she learned more about a restorative justice program in Colorado, where in 2014 the state legislature agreed to establish a restorative justice pilot.

A third-party review of Colorado’s program found that of the roughly 1,200 juveniles who completed the restorative justice program, roughly 90% stayed out of the juvenile justice system for at least a year after finishing.

Out of the 800 victims who participated, more than two thirds were direct victims of a juvenile’s crime. Others were surrogates, such as witnesses of the crime, or survivors of similar crimes who could speak to the damage done.

The review notes that victim participation in the Colorado program was low, and although most victims expressed they were pleased with the results of the program, only about 60% completed a satisfaction survey. In the document, reviewers write “further exploration is needed to learn how best to integrate harmed parties into the process and ensure their needs are fully met.”

Experts elsewhere say that the process typically benefits victims of crime more than anyone. Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske said it allows victims to ask important questions for closure.

“‘Why did this happen?’ ‘Where did you get the gun?’ ‘Why did you pick me?’ ‘Why did you pick my house?’,” Geske said. “They want to know who this person is, and how they get to a place where they’re committing these crimes.”

Geske retired from the court in the late 1990s, shortly before learning about restorative justice while teaching in a prison. For the last two decades, she’s worked at Marquette University in Milwaukee as an expert and advocate for restorative justice.

For juveniles, restorative justice is more than making participants aware of the consequences of their actions. Geske said it can help juveniles foster a deeper connection to their community.

“It helps by not pushing them out of the community, but by trying to embrace them, and having them understand that they’re a part of the community, too, and they have obligations and responsibilities to people,” Geske said.

Further down the road, Graves said she hopes the bill will reduce the state’s “school-to-prison pipeline,” and maybe eventually lead to reduced overcrowding in adult correctional facilities.

“There’s no way to be tougher on crime than preventing it in the first place,” Graves said. “I mean, you can’t be tougher on crime than that.”

What’s Next?

In discussing House Bill 2094, lawmakers co-sponsoring the legislation and those who considered it in committee haven’t addressed alternatives to juveniles who could benefit from a restorative justice program, should a victim opt out.

Graves has stressed that the bill doesn’t force anyone’s participation – it depends on willingness from both sides.

Geske says that doesn’t necessarily have to be the end-all be-all for restorative justice. Successful programs also include victim surrogates who can help juveniles confront what they’ve done.

Additionally, House Bill 2094, as written, doesn’t entail any statewide expansions for juvenile justice programs.

Some of the state’s most populous counties, like Kanawha and Cabell, aren’t involved in the state’s DHHR-funded programs.

House Bill 2094 now awaits consideration from the Senate.

The House unanimously passed the same bill to the upper chamber during the 2020 legislative session, also written by Graves, but the bill arrived only two weeks before the end of the session and never came up for a vote.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.