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WV officials unclear on fix for juvenile center

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By LAWRENCE MESSINA

Associated Press

CHARLESTON (AP) — While officials have improved conditions at West Virginia's only high-security correctional center for juveniles, they lack an immediate plan for complying with last month's court order condemning the facility, lawmakers learned Jan. 7.

Division of Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys said officials hope for clearer directions from Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn at a Jan. 4 hearing regarding the Industrial Home for Youth at Salem.

"We are not holding anything back," Humphreys told a House-Senate oversight committee. "We are waiting to see what's being asked of us."

A legal challenge of conditions in Building A of the Harrison County campus prompted December's ruling. The judge's order describes spare furnishings, small windows and cells that lack bathrooms. It treats youths there the same whether they've committed a minor misdemeanor or a serious felony, the ruling said.

"They built a prison, and we've tried to make a juvenile facility out of it," Humphreys said, agreeing with the judge. "It's obvious when you walk in. You don't have to be an expert to see that this was built ... as a maximum-security prison, and we all know that we don't need maximum security prisons to handle juveniles."

The ruling calls on lawmakers and state officials to at least renovate the building to meet minimum modern standards or remove its juveniles, or else the court will mandate such actions. That prompted Co-Chair William Laird, a senator and former Fayette County sheriff, to press Humphreys for an agency response.

"The clear language of this order is, we either do it or the court's going to do it for us," said Laird, a Democrat. "I want to know if there's a plan."

Humphreys said his agency has a long-term plan for that campus, but it has yet to present a quicker way forward to the court. While he awaits clearer word from the judge, the more obvious steps include adding bathrooms, Humphreys said.

"If that's what they want, then that's going to cost a tremendous amount of money," Humphreys said.

Sen. Greg Tucker said he was "disturbed" to hear the agency has accepted the ruling and will not appeal or ask Aboulhosn to reconsider.

"That basically puts the burden on the Legislature to either come up with the money or let the court do it. Is that your strategy?" said Tucker, a Democrat and former Nicholas County prosecutor. "The court's not going to care about the cost. The court's going to tell you to pay for it, which means you're going to have to come to us and we're going to have to appropriate the money."

Aboulhosn concluded that Building A follows an outdated training or reform school approach to rehabilitating juveniles. This model is not only the most expensive but is increasingly considered a failure and appears particularly harmful to youths age 14 and younger, Aboulhosn found, citing expert testimony in the case.

That testimony instead touted community-based programs that focus on smaller groups to encourage relationship-building and determine the best way to provide needed drug, mental health or educational services, the judge found.

Both the judge and a court-appointed monitor have praised Superintendent David W. Jones for moving toward that approach in recent months. The ruling calls for legislation embracing such changes by Jones and his staff, noting that the improvements may last only as long as Jones is in charge.

Less than 70 juveniles are in Building A, down from a high of around 180, Humphreys said. 

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.