A plea to state lawmakers: Help this man do his job

North Carolina’s juvenile justice system is in crisis

June 13, 2023 5:55 am

Deputy Secretary of the Division of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention William Lassiter (Photo: Melissa Boughton)

For average North Carolinians trying keep up with the policy debates in the General Assembly, few matters can be more opaque and harder to follow than the state budget. Every year, lawmakers pass a bill to fund state government that runs to several hundred pages and that’s packed with scores of important provisions: tax policy changes, new substantive laws, pork spending of all kinds, and appropriations to fund hundreds of core public services and structures.

To make matters even more challenging, the budget bill is usually written behind closed doors and then hurried through a series of partisan votes in just a couple of days — sometimes, without even the possibility of amendments. Many lawmakers end up voting for or against legislation with which they have only a general familiarity. News reports tend to be generic and focused on a few high-profile topics like teacher and employee pay raises.

There are a lot of obvious negative impacts from such a flawed process, but if there’s a most maddening one it might just be this: Funding decisions for dozens of under-the-radar but hugely important – even heroic – public programs get far less attention than they deserve.

For a classic example of this phenomenon in 2023, see what’s happening to the state’s juvenile justice system.

As many will remember, North Carolina enacted a big and transformative change to this system a few years back when it became the last state in the union to raise the age at which a young person accused of a crime is automatically treated as an adult from 16 to 18. The change was a good one and long overdue – the old system of sending high school sophomores into the adult corrections system was a frequent recipe for disaster – but it also caused more teens to enter a juvenile justice system that was already stretched thin.

Now add to this the pressures caused by the pandemic and the booming economy that has followed – both of which conspired to make it hugely difficult to recruit and retain good staff people – and it’s not an exaggeration to describe the current situation for the state’s juvenile justice system as an out-and-out crisis.

As William (Billy) Lassiter, the state’s widely respected deputy Secretary of Public Safety for the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told me in a recent interview, his agency is struggling right now with a staff vacancy rate in its juvenile justice facilities that stands at an astonishing 48%. Just imagine running any business – much less one as challenging and vitally important as a facility for troubled kids – with just half the necessary staff.

The situation is so desperate that Lassiter and his senior staff members regularly spend their weekends holding down the fort in the facilities themselves. In some places, kids sleep on the floor because there simply aren’t sufficient staffers to keep an adequate number of rooms and beds properly supervised.

And while there’s no simple and magical fix for this crisis, it’s undeniable that more money is desperately needed to pay employees. As Lassiter explained in our conversation: “I have folks that are working in juvenile justice that have been working with me for 30 years. that are still only making three or four-thousand dollars over the minimum salary for that position.”

Fortunately, the cost of addressing this situation amounts to a comparative pittance. Lassiter has asked state budget writers to increase his agency’s appropriation by $11.7 million so that he can reward his loyal, “mission driven” staff (and recruit and keep some new employees) with something akin to decent salaries.

Unfortunately, as you probably could have guessed, Republican budget writers – who sit atop a multi-billion-dollar reserve – have been unpersuaded or are, at least, unaware. The House budget provided none of the urgently needed new funds. The Senate would allocate $4 million – around a third of the request.

If there’s even a smidgen of compassion and common sense in the group of lawmakers crafting the final budget agreement, they’ll find a way to get Lassiter’s agency the funds it needs.

And while they’re at it, they’ll also get serious about aiding another post-pandemic cause Lassiter is championing: Gov. Cooper’s new safe gun storage initiative.

As Lassiter explained during our conversation, one of the fastest-growing contributing factors to juvenile crime is the easy access so many kids have to their parents’ firearms. The number of kids for whom a gun has been their entry point to the juvenile justice system has more than quadrupled in recent years. Meanwhile, as Lassiter also noted, data indicate that an astonishing 22% of households in North Carolina keep firearms that are not safely stored.

The bottom line: There are a lot of serious problems confronting state government in 2023 for which the potential solutions are hugely complex, prohibitively expensive or both. Juvenile justice is not one of them. State lawmakers should get Lassiter the help he needs.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.