West Virginia's geography represents a major hurdle to turning the juvenile incarceration rate around. "If you flatten all the mountains, you'd have one of the biggest states in the country," says Joey Garcia, deputy counsel to West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Programs that offer therapy and substance abuse treatment are scarce and widely dispersed, so judges sentence juveniles to facilities where treatment is available on site. A year in a West Virginia juvenile facility costs more than $80,000 per child, compared with $1,000 to $33,000 per child in community programs that have reduced recidivism by up to 20 percent in other states.

Some of the same rural states that are lacking in treatment options, including South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, are also taking an aggressive approach to minor infractions like truancy, alcohol consumption, school fights, and violations of probation. West Virginia, for example, defines truancy as more than five days of unexcused absences from school and confines juveniles for this offense at five times the national rate. While the school-to-prison pipeline is often thought of as an urban phenomenon, it is prevalent in rural areas, too.

Jack Varin, a retired juvenile-court judge in heavily rural Idaho, experienced these challenges in the six counties that he covered. In and around Twin Falls, a small city of about 40,000, he could refer troubled kids to mental health and substance abuse services. In smaller communities, those services could be up to 70 miles away, and families often could not get to them on a regular basis. As a judge, it was frustrating, Varin says. "We were always concerned about the possibility that they would become institutionalized, and it might hurt them. But we had to do something to provide them with what they needed."

In other words, one of the only ways to help a kid like Junior Smith in a place like Barbour County, West Virginia, is to incarcerate him.

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Junior is 6'3" with blond hair, green eyes, and a West Virginian twang. He usually has dried grease on his hands from working in his dad's motorcycle dealership, located in the north-central part of the state, with its landscape of farms, looming mountaintop coal mines, and one-street downtowns. Junior grew up racing dirt bikes with his younger sister, Alicia, almost from the time they could walk. Alicia and Junior were always close, but as Junior got older he grew more distant. He began drinking and smoking pot in middle school. As a sophomore at Buckhannon Upshur High School, he was one of several boys accused of bullying a football player who later committed suicide (an investigation produced no criminal charges). Junior became anxious and depressed, and his substance abuse problems worsened. He fought, skipped class, and was suspended multiple times. After one fight, a school police officer at Buckhannon High reported the incident to the courts and Junior was placed under court supervision for the next six months.

In 2011, the Smith family moved from Buckhannon to the more remote Barbour County, where Junior attended Barbour High School. Ten days before his arrest at school, Junior had pled guilty to a December burglary. One afternoon, high on painkillers, he had driven his ATV, a Rhino four-wheeler, into the driveway of a neighbor and entered the home's unlocked garage. He had the hazy idea, he later admitted on the stand, of trying to steal a six-pack of beer from the family's fridge, which he could take with him to a party that weekend. Judge Alan Moats at the Barbour County courthouse told him to go home and clean up his act. He was again placed under court supervision.

Phillip Barbour High School in Phillipi, W. Va. An altercation with another student led to Junior Smith's incarceration in February 2013.

Research from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that since 2002, stricter enforcement of low-level offenses like truancy—including placing police officers in schools like Barbour High—have put thousands of kids into contact with the West Virginia juvenile justice system. Junior was not arrested for playing hooky, but the strict policing of school-based offenses that flowed from the state's efforts to crack down on truancy ended up ensnaring him.

In Junior's case, over the course of multiple suspensions and two periods of court supervision, no social worker, psychologist, or substance abuse counselor visited the Smith family at home to provide treatment or track Junior's progress, the family says—practices that other states use. Because Junior was never officially on probation—he moved from a lower level of court supervision directly to incarceration – he was also never referred to one of West Virginia's 12 Youth Reporting Centers, where offenders can access tutoring, therapy, and other resources meant to help them get back on track. (In Florida, for instance, juvenile sentencing guidelines would have steered a judge toward probation, not incarceration, for an offender with Junior's history.) These programs exist in low numbers in some rural states, and demand for them is high, often prohibitively so.

"There is a considerable wait period for most therapeutic services in our surrounding area—a wait period that is unacceptable when I am faced with families that need immediate attention," one West Virginia probation officer told Pew. When the Smiths first realized Junior was taking painkillers, the drug treatment program they wanted him to attend was 70 miles away in Morgantown. When Kathy called, they told her there was a three-month waitlist. The most help Junior ever got was when he was in jail.