Reforms credited for driving juvenile crime down in North Carolina

State locks up fewer children, now seen as national model

tmdonald@newsobserver.comOctober 6, 2012 

  • Raise the juvenile age? State juvenile justice leaders are trying to persuade the General Assembly to pass a law that would raise the legal age at which a young person can routinely be tried as an adult from 16 to 18. North Carolina and New York are the only states in the country that routinely treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses. “There is substantial research and evidence that tells us adolescents have not yet developed mentally in the way they think through things with regards to risks and consequences,” said Robin Jenkins, deputy director of the N.C. Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Jenkins said that a child tried in adult court as a first-time offender for a minor offense would receive a “fairly routine community penalty,” such as probation. But in the juvenile system, the child would get more attention and support, such as tutoring or other structured programs. Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, a Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says treating 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles “is a great idea.” But he also cautioned that it will cost tens of millions of dollars to pay for the additional programs that would be needed in the juvenile system. He agrees that teens often use poor judgment. “When I was a teenager, my mom and dad told me to never drive fast, never smoke and never drink,” Daughtry said. “I went out and did all three.” Thomasi McDonald

— In the last couple of decades, combating teen crime and gangs in North Carolina attracted the attention of legislators, policymakers and a governor. Now there’s evidence that their solutions are working.

While overall violent crimes have declined by nearly 14 percent in the state since 2002, the number of teens under 16 charged with violent crimes has dropped by nearly 37 percent. And while overall property crime dropped 4.5 percent during that period, the arrests among teens under 16 is down about 40 percent.

Juvenile crime is down nationally, but in North Carolina the downward trend is more than double the national average. That has prompted some to call the state a model for dealing with juvenile delinquency and youth crime prevention.

By emphasizing “state-of-the-art approaches to prevention, intervention, treatment and education” for troubled youth, “North Carolina has developed a national model worth emulating,” said Harvey Milkman, a professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University in Denver and a consultant for substance abuse and criminal justice treatment centers.

The state is now locking up far fewer teens than it did a decade ago, finding treatment alternatives to its former system of training schools.

James “Buddy” Howell, who works as a researcher with the National Gang Center in Tallahassee, Fla., helped design the program that North Carolina uses. He described North Carolina’s reduction of young people in youth detention centers as “a remarkable achievement.”

“That’s a larger accomplishment than any other state I know of,” he said.

Nearly 15 years ago, the state legislature voted to revamp the state’s approach to juvenile delinquency prevention and justice. State officials adopted a program that would treat juveniles according to the seriousness of their crimes, the risks they posed and their personal histories.

The change was started by the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 1998. That law grew out of the Governor’s Commission on Juvenile Crime. Gov. Jim Hunt appointed the panel after a rise in the juvenile crime rate that was punctuated by high-profile violent crimes by very young defendants.

Moreover, an audit in 2003 by former State Auditor Ralph Campbell pushed the state to close its old training schools and build new ones, now called youth detention centers, that are tailored for the treatment and education of the state’s most wayward youngsters.

In that audit, Campbell reported that the older reform schools were “decrepit, unsafe, unsecure” and that children were not getting treatment. The Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center in the western part of the state and the Samarkand Youth Development Center both closed last year, part of budget cuts across state government.

Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield, noted that in 1998, state legislators were calling for 208 additional beds to house the state’s juvenile offenders.

“This year, we closed one of the (youth detention centers) because we did not need the extra beds,” he said.

Daughtry, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, agrees that there has been a turnaround with juvenile crime. He credits partnerships that the state juvenile justice system had forged with schools and community-based programs to provide constructive outlets for young people.

The state’s juvenile justice philosophy changed after the 2003 audit, and now relies more on therapeutic alternatives, says William “Billy” Lassiter, a state juvenile justice spokesman.

“Training schools used to be much more focused on incarcerating kids in a prison environment,” he said. “Youth detention centers focus on setting up treatment and providing children mental health counseling, developing social skills, life skills and educational needs.”

Boxing in Raleigh

Lassiter said the effects of the reforms kicked in around 2006, when the number of children being sent to the newly named detention centers started to drop.

In 1998, for example, the state was locking up 1,400 children each year in training schools. Today, at the state’s four youth detention centers, the count is around 300.

Juveniles spend a minimum of six months at youth detention centers and on average stay for one year, Lassiter said. The state’s youth detention centers are not the same as the county-run detention centers where children are placed while awaiting trial.

The state system still holds children accountable for criminal offenses, but now its primary focus is the introduction of programs that help young people stay out of trouble.

Brothers Frederick and Trayvion Amerson have been attending the Second Round gym on West Cabarrus Street for a little over a month. They hope to become trained enough in the pugilistic arts to answer the boxing bell as future Olympians, but they also are learning life skills they will need outside the ring.

Frederick Amerson, 16, ended up in the program after he was charged with assault, resisting arrest and underage drinking. The youngster had missed so many days of school last year that he received a letter that informed him he could not return for the rest of the year.

His brother, Trayvion, 15, enrolled in the boxing program after he was expelled from school for cursing out his high school principal and several teachers. “I called the principal a pinhead,” Trayvion said. “I said a lot of other things.”

Rather than go to court, the brothers met with a juvenile court counselor and signed contracts agreeing to obey their mother, abide by a curfew, regularly attend school and enroll in Second Round boxing.

The brothers start their day at the gym by completing their school homework and running five laps around the building. They toss a brown leather 10-pound ball back and forth to build up their strength, stamina, footwork and the ability to take a punch to the stomach. They pull on pairs of Everlast boxing gloves and land powerful blows into the heavy bags that hang from the ceiling.

“I love it,” Frederick Amerson said. “It’s a way for me to express myself by laying some anger off. I look forward to coming here. It’s amazing.”

Trayvion said even if the program hadn’t been mandated by juvenile court officials, he would still come every day.

Helping kids earlier

Linda Hayes, who runs the state Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, gives the community programs a large share of credit for the drop in juvenile crime. She says the division works with parks and recreation departments, United Way and other nonprofits, businesspeople, members of the clergy, substance abuse professionals, mental health providers, juvenile court counselors, and local community folk to assess the needs of young people.

Those partnerships have led to strategies to reduce youth crime and an array of mental health intervention and substance abuse treatment, counseling and mentoring, along with rehabilitation for juveniles and their families, including court-ordered parenting classes.

“The overwhelming majority of juvenile justice programming happens at the local level,” Hayes said. “While we remain focused on public safety and effective institutional programs, we also rely on great court staff, community programs and all our local partners to make these effective services happen.”

The aim is to meet the needs of children who are, on average, three to four grade levels behind their peers and to forge strategies to reduce the number of children of color in detention.

Lassiter, juvenile justice’s communications director, summed up the state juvenile justice philosophy as “the right program for the right child at the right time.”

One of those is Second Round. The program is run by Haven House, which serves about 3,000 young people and their families each year. Haven House offers a battery of services that range from helping kids brought in by their parents who have never been in trouble with the law to those who are chronic, violent offenders.

“We are not here to punish,” says Michelle Zechmann, Haven House’s executive director. “We may have someone working in a garden. He may be hot and sweaty, but he’s also learning about gardening. It’s not just about punishment, but also developing competencies to help them be more successful.”

Second Round’s coordinator, Garron Rogers, a former state probation and corrections officer, wanted to do more to help kids stay out of trouble.

“If you lock up a kid, they are just going to learn more bad habits,” he said. “Most of the young people behind bars will tell you they just needed somebody to listen to them and offer guidance.”

‘A balanced approach’

In the early 1990s, when juvenile crime was rising, North Carolina was part of a national trend that called for tougher treatment. The General Assembly passed bills that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to be tried as adults in special circumstances, while 13-year-olds could be tried as adults in first-degree murder cases.

But after the reforms of 1998, juvenile justice leaders adopted a strategy co-authored by Howell, the national gang researcher, while he was working at the federal offices of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

“It was an option to the ‘get tough movement’ in the early 1990s,” he said. “We presented it as a balanced approach.”

Some in law enforcement were critical of the balanced approach. But some police departments have embraced the idea.

In December 2008, the Raleigh Police Department implemented a community policing initiative in Southeast Raleigh one month after 16-year-old Adarius Fowler was gunned down in a drive-by shooting.

Police began meeting regularly with residents who lived in the community where Fowler was murdered. The police department set up a mentoring program at the Tarboro Road center with retired police detective George Passley at the helm. Passley, a respected military veteran, has mentored hundreds of young people at the “gang-free zone” he helped set up at the community center.

The city’s parks and recreation department was asked to set up similar programs at community centers throughout Raleigh.

That partnership has resulted in two basketball leagues, a baseball league that serves more than 60 youngsters, summer camps, soccer teams and a teen center at the old St. Monica’s School, which educated African-American children for more than three decades.

State officials say they want treatment and accountability. A child who keeps misbehaving eventually will find himself in a youth detention center, part of a system of graduated punishment.

But the group that starts as large as 30,000 juvenile offenders a year eventually dwindles down to 300 or so in long-term detention. And treating them on the front end, officials say, is much less expensive than locking them up later.

A year in a youth detention center costs more than $100,000, said Teresa Price, deputy secretary of juvenile justice.

“However, if you can keep kids in the community and wrap services around them, the average cost is $750,” Price said. “On the high end, it’s $1,400, and that’s with intensive treatment.”

In Raleigh, Frederick Amerson is benefiting from the smaller financial investment.

Frederick said he “would probably be getting into more trouble for fighting” if he wasn’t in the Second Round program.

“I can do it legal here,” he said, “and I won’t get arrested.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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