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State official shares plans to house youth offenders, but details remain scarce

The outside of the Woodside facility.
Liam Elder-Connors
VPR File
Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, which closed in 2020.

The state of Vermont has been looking for a place to house young people accused of violent crimes since closing the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in 2020.

It looked like a state proposal to open a boys facility in Newbury was moving forward, after a judge overturned a decision by the local Development Review Board to deny a permit for the project. But last week, the Newbury Selectboard voted to appeal that approval to the Vermont Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, since Woodside closed in 2020, nine juveniles have spent over 100 cumulative days in Vermont’s adult prisons.

That’s according to Peter D’Auria, who’s been covering youth detention for VTDigger. He shared his reporting with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: In September, state lawmakers tasked Agency of Human Services Secretary Jenny Samuelson with figuring out a plan to fix the lack of beds for youth offenders in Vermont. What did the agency's leader deliver to lawmakers late last month?

Peter D'Auria
Peter D'Auria

Peter D’Auria: She delivered a plan that, at least as of late last month, seemed to me to be a little, not bare bones — but not all the details have been fleshed out or they weren't able to be released.

Basically, there's plan to set up three facilities over a different timespan.

One of these is the residential treatment facility in Newbury, and that's been in the works for a while. That's been working its way through the courts.

Another one of these facilities is going to be this yet unnamed, unknown, short-term, immediate term facility. That's going to have capacity for about six to eight juveniles. And that's going to eventually be replaced by a sort of permanent facility with a kind of similar capacity.

Other than Newbury, we don't know where those other two facilities are going to be. We don't know who's going to run them. And we don't have an exact timeline on when either is going to be open, although they told us that the short-term facility is going to be hopefully open within the next few months.

And Peter, you report that since closing Woodside, the state's embarked on a years long initiative to get juveniles out of the adult criminal justice system. For those who haven't been following this story, why is it important that young Vermonters have their own facilities?

I think there's a lot of concern for minors and juveniles’ wellbeing in adult facilities. I think there's also a lot of concern that these are young people whose brains and faculties are still developing, and to saddle someone with, possibly, a long-term record could be really debilitating.

And there's also a fear that, and I believe there's research that backs this up, that if a juvenile is incarcerated in an adult facility, they're more likely to reoffend in the future. And so there's been this effort to give kids a little more slack.

And at the same time the state's been trying to get young people out of adult prisons, government officials are saying there's actually an increase in violent crime among juveniles. What are we seeing there?

I think a couple months ago, in one of these meetings, there was this phrase that came up, and I'm forgetting exactly who said it — it's not only that there's crimes, but there's gun crimes. And I think the term that was used was something like "not only having them, but being willing to use them." And I think officials have been a little vague on what this all looks like.

And at the center of the issue, too, there's a disagreement over whether these proposed youth facilities would be detention centers, or something more focused on treatment and support, like a group home. Can you explain why that's important as the state tries to get these facilities up and running amid some pushback?

Yeah, there's a few things that are kind of wrinkles in there. For one thing, the Newbury facility that's going to be set up is a treatment center. It's not going to have what state officials call a "no eject, no reject" policy. So basically, they can choose who is going to be admitted.

There’s a handful of beds scattered across the state in various areas. They're not suitable for juveniles who have been involved in really severe violence or significant violence, or have been accused of that. You know, maybe they're not secure. Or maybe they simply don't want someone involved in this to be around other juveniles. So that is a big concern, whether or not there's a treatment center or detention center.

And I should say that none of the options that the state is planning to stand up in the next few months, or next few years, are specifically detention centers. They are all being referred to as treatment centers. But they're hoping that the two that are on the table, the short term and the permanent solution, they are going to have "no eject, no reject" policies, which means that they're not gonna be able to turn any kids away.

How have state lawmakers and government officials characterized the state's handling of the youth detention problem? Is there any consternation about how things have gone?

Yeah, I think there's there's been a lot of frustration. A couple of months ago, when lawmakers met and talked about this, they basically — this is maybe not the right word — but as far as I could tell, they sort of ordered the state to do something about it. And they said, "Listen, this has been going on for too long, and we just need beds. Like that's it. Just set up a bed somewhere."

So I think maybe more in like local law enforcement this frustration has been evident. But within lawmakers in the Statehouse, I think there's also a sense that something urgent needs to be done here.

And lastly, Peter, what are the next steps with the proposed boys' and the mixed gender facilities?

The Newbury facility is under appeal. So that's still got some court processes to get through. As far as the other facilities. I think we're just waiting to hear from the state about when exactly where exactly. Who's going to run them, at least as of last month. You know, we hadn't heard any of these answers, but I think we're just sort of waiting and seeing as far as that goes.

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