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Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center gets funding (and stern words) from Alexandria City Council

Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Alexandria’s City Council unanimously approved releasing $657,629 to allow the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center to continue operating, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.

Council was told that the detention center (200 S. Whiting Street) has seen a dramatic increase in usage over the last year, and that the center is pursuing a pilot program with National Capital Treatment & Recovery to introduce a substance abuse recovery program to the unit. They were also told that an unused portion of the facility was being studied for future use.

“I would say at least 50% of our children have experimented with fentanyl,” Johnitha McNair, the detention center’s executive director, told council. “It is highly addictive, so many of them come in with needs to have addiction and withdrawal and treatment services provided immediately.”

The fate of the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center has been uncertain for years. Last year, City Council placed the funds into a reserve account until city staff could provide recommendations that:

  1. Optimize capacity within Northern Virginia for Juvenile Secure Detention services
  2. Leverage available physical plant capacity for alternative uses
  3. Pursue new regional partnerships for use of facilities and staffing

Mike Mackey, director of the city’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Service unit, said that the center has reached its capacity of 46 youth over the past year. He also said that detention-eligible cases involving Alexandria youth increased 66% last year, and 100% involving Arlington youth.

“By comparison… in 2020 the average daily population was 12,” Mackey told Council. “In 2022 it was nine, and in this fiscal year the average daily population is 26. The center has seen the population go up to its capacity of 46. Today there are 38 youth 17 of whom are from Alexandria, 10 from Arlington.”

But Mayor Justin Wilson, before Tuesday’s vote to release the funds, chided Earl Conklin, chair of the detention center’s commission and Arlington’s director of court services, for not bringing concrete proposals on new programs and services at the facility to Council.

“Where’s the proposal?” Wilson asked. “If it requires capital investment, bring us something. I, for one, have been yelling asking for that for eight years, and all I hear is, ‘We have ideas. We’re talking about these ideas.’ Where’s a proposal? I mean seriously, if it requires some investment, if it requires something to drive that forward — help me help you —  what are we not doing to make that happen?”

Conklin replied, “I think the primary message the board has gotten was of closing the (detention) center.”

“That’s not true,” Wilson interrupted. “Let me be crystal clear. As the one who has been the instigator on this, I have never said that this is about closing the facility. It has always been about how do we optimize the capacity that we have in the region, and whether that means consolidation in Alexandria, consolidation in other jurisdictions, repurposing part of the facility, whatever, it’s not been about closing the facility.”

Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention center utilization (via City of Alexandria)

The detention center is regulated by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and overseen by the Juvenile Detention Commission, which is made up of two members from Arlington, one from Falls Church, and two from Alexandria. It first opened in 1958 and houses youth with serious offenses and behavioral issues from Alexandria, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church. The center saw a 72% reduction in the number of juveniles in the facility between 2006 and 2019, prompting a reduction of beds at the facility from 70 to 46 in 2016, according to a cost-benefit analysis by the Moss Group.

The facility is also home to an unlocked shelter for up to 14 at-risk children.

Deputy City Manager Yon Lambert told council that any proposed programming changes will be presented this fall. In the meantime, Lambert said that an assessment of the detention center will be submitted to the General Assembly in October.

“If we have any budget requests, then we can process it in the fall so that the staff and the (city) manager and council can determine if its viable,” Lambert said.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said that the facility needs to remain open.

We need it now more than we ever did,” Jackson said. “The numbers were decreasing. and then here we are. They’re increasing again more than they have in years.”

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