3 NC efforts to help those in jail or at risk of going there

If you’re passionate about reforming criminal justice in America, Bryan Stevenson should be required reading.

At UNC-Chapel Hill he already has been.

Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy,” a best-selling account of his battles to save adults and children who are abused and abandoned by our legal system, was the university’s summer reading selection for rising freshmen two years ago. The New York University law professor and founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative periodically visits North Carolina, appearing in Greensboro last month to continue his fight against a national system of justice that he describes as “more committed to finality than fairness.”

Stevenson, who is African American, believes that the unequal justice that minorities too often experience in America – where black people are incarcerated at about six times the rate of whites – is rooted in a deep and still unresolved history of racial discrimination.

And his passion for finding ways to unlock the potential of Americans of all races, instead of simply locking them up, resonates in North Carolina, where several innovative initiatives are under way to help people who have run afoul of the legal system or are at risk of doing so.

In Greensboro, Stevenson highlighted one of these efforts: Guilford College’s Higher Education in Prison program. As data from the Pew Center on the States shows, one in 31 American adults is in prison, on probation, or on parole. Worse, about half of those incarcerated nationally will commit new offenses within three years of their release that send them back to prison – at a significant cost to them and to society. Guilford launched a pioneering program two years ago to break this cycle of recidivism, which is often grounded in a lack of education and job skills. Data shows that fewer than 10 percent of prisoners who earn a bachelor’s degree or complete some college work will re-offend.

Through a partnership with the N.C. Department of Public Safety, Guilford offers courses in business, conflict resolution, criminal justice, English, psychology, and sociology to men at the Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury and to women at the Southern Correctional Institution in Troy. Prisoners taking part in the five-semester program can earn up to 30 college credits that are usually transferable to colleges offering associate and bachelor’s degrees – while also reinventing themselves as productive citizens.

On the other end of the spectrum, two groundbreaking research projects that involve RTI International in Research Triangle Park are exploring ways to short-circuit potentially criminal behavior in young people before it starts.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, RTI research criminologist Josh Hendrix is surveying school district officials nationally to identify the best strategies for halting bullying and violence on school buses. Serious behavior issues at young ages tend to be predictive of more trouble later on. So Hendrix’s hope is not only to find ways to help victims of bullying but also to alter the behavior of bullies before their actions harden into something worse. He’s presented to the American Society for Criminology on this little-researched area, with early input from district officials suggesting that adult bus attendants, surveillance cameras and stronger bonds between bus drivers and students all tend to reduce problems.

Meanwhile, RTI research clinical psychologist Anna Yaros is evaluating a major effort, also supported by the National Institute of Justice, to test enhanced ways of delivering school-based mental health services in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. This study involves one-on-one and group therapy in 25 Charlotte area K-8 and middle schools for students who are at risk for major behavioral issues or already demonstrating them. Here again, one of the major aims is to work with kids early enough to prevent them from winding up in the court system, which can be particularly unforgiving in North Carolina – one of just two states in the country where 16-year-olds can be charged as adults. This four-year study, which runs through 2019, will also examine the most cost-effective ways to deliver these services.

All of these initiatives have the potential to establish best practices that can be scaled nationally if the experiments right here at home go well. They can also help unleash the talent of many more of our state’s residents, without whom our own communities will never realize their full promise.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.