Point of View

NC makes wrong move on juvenile justice

September 21, 2013 

A seismic, backward shift in the potential to accomplish effective public policy was announced this month by the N.C. Department of Public Safety, signaling an end to North Carolina’s progressive, accomplished and uniquely dedicated juvenile justice system.

The department eliminated the Division of Juvenile Justice, terminating senior juvenile justice professional leaders, reassigning section leaders to the Division of Adult Corrections managers and renaming the entire entity as the Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Services.

The juvenile justice field has been evolving for over 100 years after initially being seen as a downward extension of adult corrections for “kids.” With solid research, the juvenile system evolved from being primarily about punishment to treating youths with cognitive-behavioral, social and other skill-based interventions – the earlier the better.

Over the past 40 years, juvenile justice systems have been substantially changing with new findings relative to adolescent brain development and mental health needs. In addition, the disproportionately poor and discriminatory outcomes affecting children of color, the issues around effective legal counsel with juveniles and the negative outcomes stemming from overuse of short-term detention all drove state and national efforts to steer juvenile justice into the modern era.

A call for distinct, professionally managed and accountability-based juvenile justice systems completely separate from adult-focused correctional practices emerged, recognizing that teen brains process information very differently from adults. Youths require different interventions applied in community-based settings in concert with access to social, mental health, family and community help.

North Carolina got it right by reforming its juvenile justice system in 1998-99, creating an Office of Juvenile Justice that became the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2000. The new department was built upon best practices, evidence-supported interventions and a nationally acclaimed Comprehensive Strategy that was customized to North Carolina’s system.

The results were a resounding public policy victory: North Carolina’s juvenile crime rate is at a 15-year low, institutional placements have dropped by over 70 percent during the same period, detention center rates have dropped by over 25 percent and a multitude of facilities have been closed – some planned and some through budget reductions from the legislature.

The former Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency focused on three primary subsystems: community programs, court-focused services (supervision and accountability through effective case management, diversions when possible and collaboration among community partners) and deeper end facility services (detention and youth development centers) all within the strategic framework of the Comprehensive Strategy.

What could possibly be a good reason for eliminating what has been one of the most successful pieces of public policy legislation in North Carolina’s history? Politics. Many Republican lawmakers and legislative staff members have long wanted to reduce spending on juvenile justice, saying that our at-risk youths shouldn’t require so much of the state’s resources (especially those in facilities) and that these “kids” can be managed in larger groups with less expensive interventions (even though juvenile justice state appropriations were always less than 1 percent of the total state budget).

This way of thinking got many states into trouble with the Civil Rights Division of the federal Department of Justice, Disabilities Rights and other advocacy and legal groups. Large group settings were major reasons for the Prison Rape Elimination Act (2002), affecting both adults and juveniles. Research has consistently found that youths served in smaller facilities with more individualized services, using the proper “dose” and service for the types of risk involved, achieve much more cost-beneficial long-term outcomes. Sure, these more individualized services cost more at the time of delivery, but they achieve much more substantial reductions in recidivism and therefore cost significantly less in tax dollars.

Other major problems with combining the juvenile and adult systems include an inability to integrate data systems because of juvenile confidentiality; a lack of training among managers to evaluate juvenile justice practices, leading to models less focused on outcomes and more on punishment; the different goals and strategies of the education programs within the two systems, with adult education focused on GEDs and trades and the juvenile system focused on high school graduation and college and career training.

There is virtually no strong argument anywhere in the country or in research literature for North Carolina to take this step backward. This is a costly and seriously flawed strategy for the current administration to pursue. Juvenile justice professionals, advocates and consumers across the state should mourn its passing – it is the death of a wonderful idea and a notably successful agency.

Linda W. Hayes is a former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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