Committee pitches juvenile justice funding as legislative session begins

By: - January 12, 2023 12:00 pm

Juvenile detention bedrooms at the C.A. Dillon facility each have a window. There are 10 to a wing in one building and 12 to a wing in another. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Juvenile detention bedrooms at the C.A. Dillon facility (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The proposals were included within the final report written by the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee.

A committee of juvenile justice experts has recommended legislators approve a step pay plan for employees who work at juvenile detention centers.

The proposal comes a month after Deputy Secretary of Juvenile Justice Billy Lassiter told committee members North Carolina’s juvenile detention centers were understaffed and over-capacity, a combination that made it so difficult to retain employees in the low-paid positions that officials were offering bonuses just for people showing up to work.

Those employees’ starting salary is $34,500, an amount they can be stuck near for their whole career. Step pay plans allow for pay raises based on tenure and job performance, giving employees an incentive to remain employed at the juvenile detention centers.

Employee recruitment and retention is especially important at the juvenile detention centers, as North Carolina raised the minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction three years ago, ending the practice of automatically charging all 16- and 17-year-old children in adult court. That means fewer kids in adult prison, but at least in the short term, more children in juvenile detention centers.

The proposal’s authors — co-chairs of the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee, created by the same Raise the Age law that expanded the purview of the juvenile justice system  — noted that the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was at a “competitive disadvantage” with how little they could offer to pay employees. That disadvantage played out last month, when state officials tried to hire more employees at the Cabarrus Juvenile Detention Center after the county-run Mecklenburg Juvenile Detention Center closed.

“Over 170 interviews occurred, and only 10 people accepted the offer,” the report reads. “Recruitment from the closing Mecklenburg was made impossible due to a $22,000 cut in salary to work for the state.”

Figures from several state agencies suggest the reforms are working, that fewer kids are winding up behind bars. The State Bureau of Investigation reported to the committee that arrests have decreased 70% over the past five years for youth under age 18. There are also far fewer children winding up in adult prison; corrections officials reported that there were 25 people admitted to prison who were younger than 17 in the 2022 Fiscal Year, an 85% decrease from four years prior.

There were 16 kids, on average, incarcerated in adult prisons in the 2022 Fiscal Year, a 79% decrease from FY 2018. The children who were released in FY 2022 spent an average of 107 days in prison.

The Juvenile Age Final Report was released this month. (Image: NCDPS)

But as there are fewer kids winding up in prison cells, the juvenile justice system is growing as 16- and 17-year-olds are sent there who otherwise would have gone through the adult system before Raise the Age. The juvenile system has grown by 63% since Raise the Age went into effect in 2019.

More money is needed to ensure there are enough beds to serve the young people who wind up in the system, according to the advisory committee.

The report suggested funding Juvenile Justice to the tune of $9.8 million in the 2024 Fiscal Year and $8.7 million in Fiscal Year 2025 for beds in juvenile detention and youth development centers. Other funding proposals include $110,000 to the Office of the Juvenile Defender for a full-time employee, $298,885 to the Conference of District Attorneys to support two full-time employees, and an annual allocation of $4,667,814 — and one-time cost of $367,122 — to address court staff shortages across the state.

The report, dated Jan. 15, comes in the opening days of North Carolina’s 2023-2024 legislative session. It is also the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee’s final duty — but the co-chairs wrote that there was still a need for the work to continue, even if they and their colleagues had fulfilled their statutory obligation.

“The current committee recognizes that the main work of raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction has largely been completed,” wrote Bill D. Davis and Garry Frank, the committee’s co-chairs. “Because of the ever-changing nature of juvenile justice, this group recommends that some other entity be created to continue providing better outcomes for youth and expand on the work of the JJAC.”

The report also makes one legislative recommendation, a statutory change intended to clarify the indictment process for children who were 16 or 17 years old at the time of the criminal offense.

A subcommittee also pitched a list of potential statutory changes and considerations that weren’t fully vetted by the entire committee; the suggestions were left as breadcrumbs for future committees or legislators passionate about juvenile justice.

That list includes:

  • Allowing Superior Court judges to close court for juvenile cases
  • Reassessing how pretrial release conditions are set for minors who are released from detainment
  • What happens when children don’t show up for their hearing in Superior Court or who otherwise violate the conditions of their release
  • Developing clear statutory guidance on who is responsible for determining whether a child must be charged as an adult because of prior convictions
  • Assessing whether parents are still required to participate in the court process once a youth turns 18

Click here to read the final report.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.