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View from the Senate: New Approach to Treatment for Juvenile Offenders

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The Division of Youth Services (DYS) has already begun to make sweeping changes in how the state treats juvenile offenders.

The Division announced that the first day of May marked the beginning of a new approach for meeting the needs of youthful offenders.

The new changes mean that a team of staff will tailor an individual treatment plan for each offender, and the team will discuss that plan in person with the youths and their families. Previously, staff talked over the telephone with the youth’s family.

The team who personally meet with youths and families will be larger and more specialized than previously. They will include an education specialist, a nurse, a behavioral health clinician, an independent living expert and a behavior modification specialist. With the family, they will review the results of every assessment that the youths have gone through.

The DYS announcement specifically mentioned the availability of drug abuse treatment for teenagers who get in trouble with the law. The Division has contracted with an organization that can house youths in a group home while treating them for substance abuse.

Also, the Division is opening a residential facility in Harrisburg for females. It will be at the Harrisburg Juvenile Treatment Center and will open by the end of May and will provide personalized treatment for girls.The new approach to treatment, and the renewed emphasis on keeping young offenders in their local communities, is part of a statewide effort to completely restructure the DYS system. Many of the changes are authorized in Act 189 of 2019, which requires all juvenile judges to rely on a uniform risk assessment system.

A goal is to eliminate the severe disparities in treatment of juvenile offenders, which resulted in teenagers from some parts of the state being sentenced to lockups for relatively minor offenses.

Judges will be required to rely on uniform sentencing standards, but they also will have more options. Some youths may be required to attend structured, after-school programs in their hometowns, rather than being sent across the state to a secure lockup.

DYS is in the process of contracting with organizations that will provide residential treatment for juvenile sex offenders, as well as substance abuse treatment. Also, the Division will contract with an organization to operate a therapeutic group home.

Every year, about 350 youths get in trouble and are placed in the custody of DYS by a court.

The changes at DYS are meant to provide youths with the most appropriate treatment, in the least restrictive setting. The Division has closed secure lockups, and is expanding the use of group homes that are not surrounded by fencing.

In related news, the DYS operation of secure detention facilities is in litigation. The Division is in the process of contracting with a private firm to run secure detention facilities in Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield.

The Nevada company that originally got the contract was disqualified after a competitor from Indiana filed a complaint, which referred to past problems the Nevada company had while running a juvenile lockup in Colorado. The Indiana firm got the contract and the Nevada firm sued to win it back. The contract was for one year and valued at $15.8 million.

A spokesman for DYS said that the Division is poised to turn over the juvenile facilities to a private operator by July 1.

READ MORE: Legislature Refers Proposed Amendments to Voters

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