With effort from a University of Virginia School of Law clinic and bipartisan support from the General Assembly, a bill improving prevention services for at-risk youth will soon become law.
Introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, SB 485 is a response to perceived shortcomings of the Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development Act.
Passed in 1979, that law focuses exclusively on providing funds for prevention services, according to McClellan, such as services for at-risk youth before they enter the juvenile justice system.
Her law seeks to improve interagency planning and service coordination by offering localities more flexibility to provide advance intervention for youth, according to a news release from McClellan’s office.
Programs for at-risk youth are often only available after they come in contact with the criminal justice system, something the bill will change by removing some administrative responsibilities needed to access the act’s funding.
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“This bill will give localities expanded tools to support at-risk youth and prevent them from getting in legal trouble,” McClellan said. “By providing early intervention before a child gets into trouble, the Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development Act helps build communities and make them safer. This is a common-sense step to strengthen proven prevention programs.”
Although Gov. Glenn Youngkin has not yet signed the bill, a spokesperson for McClellan’s office said he informed them that he did not plan to veto the legislation. If the bill is not acted on or signed by the Monday deadline then it becomes a law automatically.
In order to draft the legislation, McClellan worked alongside law students from the State and Local Government Law Clinic overseen by UVa law professor Andy Block. The clinic runs over the course of two semesters and gives students the ability to work with lawmakers and politicians.
The goal of the clinic is to help officials from all branches of government with solving problems they don’t always have the time and resources to research on their own, Block has said.
This was not McClellan’s first time collaborating with students from the clinic. They helped her draft and pass legislation during the 2021 session that allows defendants to present at trial evidence of their mental state at the time of an alleged offense.
Students Scott Chamberlain and Nathan Wunderli were assigned to work with McClellan and spent several months researching the history of the Delinquency Prevention and Youth Development Act and helping draft an update.
“It was originally passed in 1979 and hadn’t been updated since and then it got defunded around the time of the Great Recession, so it was still on the books, it just wasn’t funded,” Chamberlain said. “So this was like a two-pronged approach to update the bill and to try to get funding for it again.”
Because the bill was passed more than four decades ago, Chamberlain said much of the language was dated and didn’t reflect current best practices for youth intervention. In addition to adding some guidelines about current best practices, he said they removed some redundant reporting requirements that forced localities to complete a landscape analysis of what youth intervention services existed in the area.
“That was basically forcing localities to do the same exact work that other departments were already completing, so it didn’t really serve any purpose,” Chamberlain said.
They also altered a requirement for localities to create an entirely new committee to receive the funds. Now localities can use existing committees and adapt them to the purpose.
Although the budget amendment for the bill did not pass this session, the legislation itself received unanimous support, which Chamberlain and Wunderli found surprising initially.
“I was a little surprised that it was unanimous. I think the reason it was is that there’s a lot of hunger in Virginia right now for preventive services, specifically around youth intervention and crime prevention and this bill addresses both of those things,” Chamberlain said. “There’s really a focus on what localities can do themselves. This enables localities to take action in their own backyard rather than the state imposing something on them.”
With SB 485 now passed, the duo have turned their attention to a different client and are working on a project that involves diverting patients with mental health issues out of the criminal justice system
Wunderli said the process of working with McClellan and the General Assembly was enlightening and gave him a greater comfort with the legislative process.
“I feel like in the future, when I have an issue that I care about, I’ll now be able to advocate for it and effect legislative change, assuming I reach out to the right people,” Wunderli said. “The process is long, but it’s definitely doable and it’s something that isn’t just for legislators. Anyone who feels passionate about an idea or changing something can do it.”