North Carolina’s prison and juvenile justice system has had many recent notable accomplishments. Our juvenile crime rate has decreased for six consecutive years while the number of juveniles housed in youth development and juvenile detention centers also decreased significantly. Offenders under the age of 18 who were adjudicated and sentenced to prison as adults are no longer placed in solitary confinement. Instead, we have implemented a program that takes into account the developmental needs of this particular age group.
Within the state prison system, the number of offenders in solitary confinement has been reduced from more than 5,300 to about 2,500. We’ve developed an incentive-based system aimed at changing offenders’ behaviors, developing their skills and education, and ultimately increasing the likelihood of successful re-entry into our communities. We are in the process of implementing that system at a number of prisons, with longer-term plans to apply these interventions across the entire system.
As prisons have become de facto mental health hospitals, the need for better management and treatment of offenders with mental illness necessarily has gained strong focus. The department has trained approximately 4,510 staff members within adult corrections and most direct-care juvenile justice employees in crisis intervention methods.
Additionally, an eight-hour mental health awareness training program has been developed and will be provided to all prisons employees. Therapeutic Diversion Units for offenders with mental illness have been developed. These units, which will decrease the need for placement in secure housing, will use individually tailored treatment plans to assist offenders with coping and social skills development, emotional regulation and medication management.
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Training of all adult community corrections and juvenile court counseling staff in Mental Health First Aid and placement of probation officers at Confinement in Response to Violation sites, as well as at selected prisons, also serve the offender and the community upon the offender’s re-entry into the community.
To enable our criminal justice system to provide the most age-appropriate services to our youthful offenders, North Carolina needs to raise the juvenile age to 18. I have taken all administrative steps available to me to establish age-appropriate programming for our juveniles in the prison system, but, to complete this work, the General Assembly must act to remove juveniles from our jails and prisons.
I believe that North Carolina’s prisons must transform from institutions built just for housing inmates to facilities that better address those factors that drive an individual to commit crimes. Our prison system is currently undertaking this comprehensive remissioning initiative, aimed primarily at helping offenders make the changes necessary to become law-abiding, contributing members of the community.
This process will include identifying the most appropriate mission for each of the state’s 56 prisons. Each prison’s mission will be based on the distribution of needs across the population of approximately 37,000 inmates, the location and capacity of each facility, staffing and the most effective use of resources.
A key component in this remissioning effort will be establishing re-entry facilities, the portal through which incarcerated individuals will pass to prepare for transition back into society. Simply put, without appropriate attention to and resources wisely invested in our facilities and in our communities for offender re-entry, our best efforts toward North Carolina’s nationally recognized criminal justice reform, whether that be through the Justice Reinvestment Act in Adult Corrections or Juvenile Justice’s progressive strategic plan, will be for naught.
The vast majority of offenders in our prisons will be returning to our communities. That fact alone makes it incumbent upon those who work within the state’s criminal justice system to encourage each individual for whom we have care and custody to engage in a process of personal growth and self-improvement, and to support the individual’s efforts to leave prison a changed person with hope for a better, more pro-social future.
Numerous additional efforts supporting the longer-term goals of the remissioning initiative are underway. We are proud of our progress and remain dedicated to full implementation of the larger remissioning agenda. These gains could not have been made without significant effort, redirection of resources and our administration’s vision regarding a new approach to offender management. With ongoing support, to include increased funding and staffing, continued beneficial results can be expected for the people of North Carolina.
W. David Guice is the commissioner of the N.C. Department of Public Safety.