NC’s new “Raise the Age” law appears to be off to a promising start

NC’s new “Raise the Age” law appears to be off to a promising start

Youth who are at the Insight Juvenile Crisis and Assessment Center spend most of the day in school. They can be of varying grade levels, and they can work together or independently depending on their needs. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

New facilities and policies offer hope to 16 and 17 year-olds once consigned to the adult corrections system

Tall trees and a rocky, woodsy landscape envelop the C.A. Dillon juvenile detention campus in Butner. Save for the tall metal fence that rings the confinement building, the area could be mistaken for a summer camp or private school grounds.

The feeling that greets the visitor of wanting to go for a group hike or play flag football with old pals quickly diminishes inside, however, as the smell of fresh paint permeates the building and barred windows and concrete walls remind you that this isn’t a fun trip away from home. But it won’t be like that forever – after all, this isn’t jail.

Jim Speight, Director of Facility Operations for Juvenile Justice at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, stood at the entry to a wing at Dillon under construction with 10 bedrooms and a large open space in the middle. He motioned to the walls between the heavy metal doors and urged his audience to picture motivational posters. He then pointed to the center of the room and talked about plans for  new furniture that would give the place a more homey feel. The area will be “very soft,” he said.

The kids who inhabit juvenile detention facilities are treated very differently than the people who are locked up in adult jails. There is an intentional effort to rehabilitate and educate youth who commit crimes, get to the root of their issues, ensure them that people care about them and help them be successful in their communities to combat recidivism.

That’s why advocates worked so hard to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina to include 16- and 17-year-olds (it was the last state in the nation to do so). As of Dec. 1 of last year, those teenagers who would have previously gone to adult jails now go to facilities like the one being renovated at Dillon.

“In the jails, often these kids don’t get any education services,” said William Lassiter, Deputy Secretary of Juvenile Justice. “Getting them back into a routine and understanding the importance of education can be the key. It’s a huge difference just by getting them back into an educational environment.”

Painting the ‘correct picture’

There’s a lot of pressure on Juvenile Justice officials right now to provide details on how Raise the Age is going since the law became effective Dec. 1, but Lassiter is encouraging patience.

“The reality is all the complaints don’t come in on the exact day the incident occurred. It may take a couple weeks for the investigation to occur and those types of things, so we are trying to make sure we paint the correct picture and say that this is preliminary data and we’ll have a better picture in a couple months,” he said.

William Lassiter, Deputy Secretary of Juvenile Justice at the Department of Public Safety, explains what the detention process looks like for juveniles since the implementation of Raise the Age legislation. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee – tasked with implementing and monitoring Raise the Age legislation – met earlier this month to prepare its first legislative report on how the change has gone on.

So far, the projections the committee made have generally been close to, or a little under, what was expected. It’s a trend Lassiter hopes holds.

The committee projected 1,683 Raise the Age complaints in the month of December – the first month of implementation – but preliminary data shows there were only 407. It was anticipated there would be 60 juveniles detained that first month, and reports show there were 78.

“These numbers could go up,” he told the committee, noting that some investigations were still ongoing. “Take it all with a grain of salt.”

It’s a message he also made sure got to the legislature. The committee completed its first required report, but Lassiter said they would do another in May to make sure the most accurate data would be available.

“The reason why it’s important right now is the Governor is building his budget, the legislators are starting to look at their budget for the short session, and so we want to make sure we have as accurate data as possible to present to both of them as they’re building their budgets,” he said.

Overall, though, things are going swimmingly, and better than a lot of people expected, according to Lassiter and others who serve on the committee.

Jeffrey Ledford, Chief of Police in Shelby, told the group at its meeting earlier this month that the law enforcement side of Raise the Age was “going pretty well.” It was an important update, because law enforcement was one of the biggest barriers to getting legislation passed.

“It’s different – it’s a change so it’s going to be a challenge,” Ledford said.

He added, however, that officers were appreciative of training they have received from DPS, and that some of the solutions they’ve offered to help with the transition, like 24-hour support services, have been a good thing to encourage networking.

Of the quirks Ledford has seen, all of them worked out, he said. The biggest challenge impacting law enforcement currently is transportation, but Lassiter said DPS is in the process of hiring 30 people to fill transportation teams to take juveniles to one of the 10 detention facilities across the state.

Six of the 10 juvenile detention facilities are state-operated – Alexander currently has 24 beds; Cabarrus has 30 beds; Cumberland has 18 beds; New Hanover has 18 beds; Pitt has 18 beds; and Wake has 24 beds. The other four county-operated juvenile facilities are in Durham, which has 14 beds (though an expansion is planned); Guilford, which has 44 beds; Madison, which has 19 beds; and Mecklenburg, which has 24 beds.

How Raise the Age works

The process now in place starts with a criminal incident committed by a juvenile. Law enforcement starts its investigation by filing a complaint with a Juvenile Justice court counseling office.

The office at that point turns a complaint into a petition by working with law enforcement officials, who will eventually sign off on it. The office determines whether or not to approve a case, dismiss it or close it out altogether if there’s insufficient evidence to move it forward.

That decision determines what’s next for the juvenile involved: they could go to court or comply with a certain kind of contract to work with juvenile counselors for six months. If they complete that contract, they’re done with the juvenile system, or in the alternative, they could then go to court.

The twist with Raise the Age 16- and 17-year-olds, Lassiter said, is that if there is probable cause or a finding of fact that they committed a crime considered to be an “A through G offense” – these are more serious felony crimes – they are automatically transferred to adult criminal court.

However, at that point, if the prosecutor and defense attorney agree adult court is not the best place for a juvenile in a particular case, there is something called a reverse waiver that allows them to automatically transfer that youth back to juvenile court without needing a judge’s decision.

“That was not in the original law,” Lassiter said of the reverse waiver. “We got that added last year, because we knew there would be cases where it’s just not appropriate for that A through G to go to adult court, where that kid has a mental health problem or a kid that has a developmental disability that would be better served in the juvenile justice system.”

Of the December data for Raise the Age implementation, Lassiter said about three to four percent were more serious crimes that would be transferred to adult criminal court.

“It’s pretty much what we predicted all along,” he said. “The vast majority of juvenile crimes are misdemeanors and low level crimes, and that has been the case so far of what we’re seeing here.”

Larger urban areas like Wake, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties have seen the highest Raise the Age numbers thus far, but that’s also typical for juvenile crime in general, according to Lassiter.

In addition to trying to get a clearer picture of how Raise the Age will continue to trend, Lassiter said one of the biggest challenges right now is getting folks hired to work with Juvenile Justice and getting the correct resources and services in place for youth who come through the system.

“We’re starting to get a clearer picture of what the types of crimes are, but more importantly for us, we don’t just match a service based off of the type of crime a kid commits – we look at the risk factors and the needs factors of that child,” he said. “Making sure that we have services that are addressing those risks and needs factors and making sure that we are nimble enough to get those resources out to serve those young people [is important].”

Part of the juvenile justice system involves assessing each child, family and case that comes through to tailor intervention for the best chance of success.

The Department of Public Safety’s Juvenile Justice staff took Policy Watch on a tour last week of the C.A. Dillon campus in Butner, a former youth development center that has been undergoing renovations to make it a state-operated juvenile detention center in the wake of the passage of “Raise the Age” legislation. Renovations began a little over a year ago and are expected to be completed by the end of February. There are currently six other state-operated juvenile facilities in North Carolina, and four county-operated juvenile facilities. Dillon will have ultimately a 36-bed capacity with the potential for 92 beds altogether (an additional $2 million in capital was requested to continue renovations to provide the additional beds). It will start this spring with 20.

The C.A. Dillon Campus

It’s important for the Department of Juvenile Justice to spark a sense of hope in its youth, said Casey Reece, Director of the C.A. Dillon juvenile detention facility.

Working with kids caught in the criminal justice system was a calling for him, and he’s excited to get started when the Butner facility opens in the coming weeks.

He explained that juveniles in detention will have up to four visits per week with family; they can send up to two letters per week and the postage is paid; and they can have one phone call per day.

There will be video conferencing capability, and in some cases, court counselors can drive family members to and from the facility.

“We want the parents to be as involved as possible,” Reece said.

He added that it’s important to show kids care, and that their role doesn’t end when they are released. Counselors continue communication and wrap-around services to help kids be successful outside of detention and to reduce the chance that they will re-offend.

Each juvenile will have their own bedroom at the facility, complete with a bed, safety bedding, a toilet, a sink and a mirror-like aluminum panel on the wall above it and a window that lets in natural light.

There will be medical services – in C.A. Dillon’s case, there is a contract with both the University of North Carolina and Duke University to conduct clinics staffed by medical students in their residencies and supervised by a senior medical professional.

The facility will be co-ed, and juveniles will spend most of their day in school and in day areas that will have a TV and game tables. Depending on capacity, school can be held in the day rooms or in one of the four classrooms currently under renovation.

The counselors who work with the kids in detention won’t wear uniforms, just polo shirts, and they will be supervising at all times. The rule is one counselor per eight youth during the day and one per 16 at night, though in all situations, there would also be a supervising counselor as well.

There is a second facility on the Dillon campus that has an additional 36 beds that will eventually be used. Lassiter said it could be an evacuation location for other detention facilities in emergencies or severe weather or it could also be used for housing longer-term populations.

The average right now for youths in short-term detention facilities is 17 days, but there is also the potential for a longer term stay depending on how cases move through the court system, according to Lassiter.

Another unique offering at Dillon will be the nearby Insight Juvenile Crisis and Assessment Center, one of three non-secure residential facilities that provides evidenced based services, crisis care, assessment, and therapeutic residential services for youth who require temporary out of home placement to assess and/or stabilize their behaviors.

Not every youth who enters the juvenile justice system goes to detention first; treatment in a “crisis bed” is another option. It’s for kids who have crises at home, threaten to hurt someone, are on the younger side or who have mental health issues that need attention.

Kids can also be transferred out of detention to the crisis center, though the program there is voluntary.

Cindy Porterfield, Director of Juvenile Community Programs, said the three centers across the state currently serve 298 juveniles. They offer intensive services and a connection back to school services for kids who may have been unsuccessful before going to the center.

She said they have the funds for a fourth location to better serve the eastern part of the state and are currently working to find a property there.

A different type of intervention

The Insight Center in Butner serves 12 children currently between the ages of 10 and 17 and is operated by Methodist Home for Children.

Youth who would have gone to adult jail before Raise the Age was passed didn’t have the option to be treated at a crisis center, which was accurately described as “much softer” than juvenile detention.

Creative artwork adorns the walls at Insight surrounded by cozy furniture and those motivational posters Speight talked about installing at Dillon. The kids there spend most of their time in a classroom together (9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday) learning to get back on track with their education, no matter what grade they’re working to complete.

Sarah, a 16-year-old whose last name is withheld for privacy, is one of those kids. She gave Juvenile Justice officials a tour of the Insight crisis center last week. Before she started, though, she looked each person in the eye, shook their hand and introduced herself – a greeting skill she learned at the center.

“I’m really looking forward to going to job interviews,” she said of her new skill.

Tonia Rogers Dixon, an open manager at Insight, noted how far the teen had come during her short stay at the center. She said the kids there learn 51 different life skills to help them when they return to their community.

“They’re really into it, because they haven’t been taught those skills before,” she said.

Rogers Dixon said they had one child at the center recently who wanted to go into law enforcement, but didn’t know how or if he could. Counselors spent some time showing him how to look up information about the job, such as pay, what type of degree is needed, etc.

“He said, ‘I can really do this,’” she said. “They sky’s the limit. Somewhere down the line, no one showed them how to pave their path.”

Sarah said other skills she learned included how to provide feedback, how to gain respect for other people and simply how to mature. She’s also gotten back on track with school and is looking forward to returning to her hometown school despite not liking it before her stay at the center.

“They’re really nice here and they taught me,” she said, adding that she’s read five 500-page books since she arrived and didn’t like reading before either.

The center offers clinical assessments, as well as behavioral, psychological, educational and personality assessments. Staff can treat substance abuse, trauma, medical issues and behavioral disorders like ADHD.

Kristen Tettemer, assistant director of residential services for Methodist Home for Children said staff help guide the kids there and direct a plan for them with a program that allows the juvenile to take control and at the same time, be law abiding.

“This [program] gives them someone else to be in their corner,” she said.

She added that it’s especially important in the wake of Raise the Age because it’s easier for older youth to “slip through the cracks.”

Lassiter said DPS will continue to collect data about all facets of Raise the Age, and the next steps will be to form any additional fiscal recommendations to the General Assembly and Governor and to work on a few more legislative issues, such as the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction and removing all juveniles from adult jails.

“I think the most important thing right now is that it’s going well, that the planning, the hard work that was put in by our folks, but also by all departments – the [UNC] School of Government, our court system, our law enforcement, partners – it really has paid off,” he said. “We’ve entered this new age in the state of North Carolina in a really good place.”