Time was, politicians tried to out-tough one another on crime, even juvenile crime, where training schools were used, often ineffectively.
But then, Gov. Jim Hunt named a commission to examine juvenile crime, and out of that came North Carolinas Juvenile Justice Reform Act, in 1998. The law had officials looking at punishments for juveniles based on their personal histories (many of which were grim), the seriousness of their crimes and what risks they might pose to others.
Then the State Auditors Office, under the late Ralph Campbell, did an audit critical of the training or reform schools, which were not in good shape and also were focused more like youth jails. That was in 2003.
Since then, the states approach in juvenile detention centers, and on those young people whose situations can be addressed on the outside, has leaned more toward treatment for possible mental health problems, and counseling to give kids who may have incredibly deprived backgrounds some social skills and help to improve schoolwork.
And guess what? The new approach to juvenile crime hasnt just worked. It has worked spectacularly. A report last Sunday by The News & Observers Thomasi McDonald said that the number of young people under 16 charged with violent crimes has dropped by nearly 37 percent. The arrests in that same age group for property crimes are down 40 percent.
North Carolinas downturn in juvenile crime mirrors a national drop and then some. In fact, the percentage decline in this state is more than double the percentage decline nationally.
Reform, that change in direction with a focus on prevention, worked.
It worked with programs such as Haven House Services, a Raleigh non-profit that specializes in working with young people in trouble or at risk of getting in trouble.
One program is called Second Round, in which young people learn about weight-training and boxing and healthier living in general. Some teens may be sent there by officials as an alternative to entering what might well turn out to be a long-term relationship with the court system.
Haven House also might channel kids to do work in the community, working in gardens and so forth. Its a punishment of sorts, but its learning, too.
Its always been known by social workers and many judges that once a young person goes to jail for a period of time, he may be lost. In jail, punishment is a loss of freedom, and the consequences of law-breaking are supposed to be made clear. But other lessons come in how to be a better criminal. Often theres no respect built for others or for authority, only feelings of resentment and an urge for revenge.
The instinct to make em pay in our society is understandable, particularly among those who have themselves been the victims of crime. And make no mistake: People of any age who commit violent crimes must indeed be punished.
But a doff of the hat goes to police departments such as Raleighs, where retiring Chief Harry Dolan stepped up community policing. He encouraged officers to meet with those of all ages in high-crime areas, to figure out what was going on and what could be done about it. In the city, that meant young folks began to see officers not just as adversaries, but as the people who helped to form basketball and baseball leagues, summer camps and a teen center.
These efforts are working. They have worked. They will continue to work. And cities will be safer as a result. Just as important, lives that might have slipped through the cracks to the world of crime will quite literally be saved.