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Falls Church Weighs In On Detention Center’s Future

MEMBERS OF THE MOSS GROUP, INC., the criminal justice consultants looking into whether or not the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center should remain in operation, hang around following the meeting to talk with attendees. (Photo: News-Press)

A meeting about the pending fate of the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center was held in the City of Falls Church on Thursday, where the conversation focused on whether the facility’s physical limitations might prevent its care options along with alternatives to the current site.

Falls Church was first in the rotation to hold its discussion about the detention center’s future following new data that highlights how the facility is being underutilized. Fellow municipal stakeholders in the City of Alexandria and Arlington County will have their local meetings tomorrow and Thursday, respectively.

An independent analysis of the NVJDC’s necessity is being conducted by Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice consulting firm, The Moss Group, Inc., who also moderated the public discussion involving attorneys, juvenile probation officers, commissioners who oversee the detention center and Falls Church City Council members Phil Duncan, Letty Hardi and Mayor David Tarter. Primarily, the discussion covered how effective NVJDC’s design is for the goal of rehabilitating its clients.

One attendee, an attorney with a background in education law and special education who is also familiar with the principles of trauma-informed care, cited that the facility’s physical structure prevents it from providing proper treatment.

She specifically mentioned the rooms lack of natural light and insufficient recreation areas for movement. Also, the design’s cell block structure with indirect supervision isn’t as ideal as direct supervision in the dorm-style model that is being implemented in adult facilities throughout the region. To accommodate this change, the attendee recalled how the commission’s chair told her a physical redesign of the facility wouldn’t be possible without removing the rooms where clients currently sleep.

Andie Moss, president of the Moss Group, pointed out that architects who work alongside the consultants are accustomed to retrofitting facilities to keep pace with evolutions in care, a process Moss called “normalization.” Johnitha McNair, NVJDC’s executive director, also pushed back on the attendee’s comment about inadequate recreation areas, which she said included an area to play soccer as well as a basketball court.

McNair told the News-Press following the meeting that a full audit is done every three years to ensure that the detention center’s recreation offerings, service provision (such as schooling or therapy) and standards of care are in line with the state’s own juvenile detention standards. NVJDC was determined to be fully compliant in its most recent audit, per McNair.

The detention center’s executive director also stated toward the end of the discussion that she believes NVJDC’s current design doesn’t inhibit its ability to deliver quality care for its clients.

Alex Boston, who’s served as Falls Church’s lone commissioner on the five-person Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Commission since 2013, was reluctant to say whether or not a redesign would help the facility carry out its programming. He did, however, voice his support for the programming McNair has put in place and how he believes its a step above what is offered at facilities in Fairfax County and Prince William County. Boston felt that the clients would more likely be “warehoused” at another detention center instead of receiving the appropriate treatment.

Another option explored was relocation. Suggested consolidation locations such as Fairfax County’s own juvenile facility, which has a more modern design, were put forward as a possibility. The attendees wondered aloud if, by using Fairfax County’s juvenile detention center, the municipalities at NVJDC would lose any say in its functioning. It’s why Boston prefers to remain at NVJDC to preserve local control.

All three of the jurisdictions invested in the facility have witnessed a reduction of over 70 percent in its use from FY2006 to FY2019, according to a presentation that kicked off the meeting. For all jurisdictions, total “bed days” (overnight stays) at the detention center in 2006 was 20,092. In 2019, that number dropped to 5,574. Falls Church’s bed days dropped from 498 in 2006 to 102 in 2019. NVJDC has 27 youths there at the time of the meeting; less than half of its 70-person capacity.

Boston weighed in on the inception of this study as well, which includes Alexandria’s plans for its commercial future.

“In the end, this is being driven by development. And, the City of Alexandria, I think, wants that land to be part of that development project by Landmark. A detention facility doesn’t fit into that.” Boston told the News-Press. “[NVJDC being shut down] may not happen, but that’s how [the study] was designed, in my opinion.”

The Moss Group was contracted by the City of Alexandria over the summer to study whether the detention center was still worth operating and what other options might be available. The criminal justice consultants will deliver the conclusions of their study in January.