Guest columnist: We’re losing a state juvenile justice system that works

Dec. 27, 2012 @ 09:07 PM

Remarkable juvenile justice outcomes have been achieved in this state, including a 10-year-low juvenile offense rate and reduction of confinement by two-thirds, saving taxpayers more than $20 million. The catalyst for these changes came from the enactment of the North Carolina Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 1998. This act created a stand-alone Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and placed priority back on community-based treatment while reserving confinement for serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders. The act also established Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils in each county to ensure the availability of local services that would reduce recidivism and confinement.

However, this incredibly successful juvenile justice system is being dismantled. Many readers may not know that — under the presumption of cost savings — the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was eliminated from its independent cabinet-level status and reconstituted as a division within the Department of Public Safety that also houses the Department of Corrections for adults. The lesson from other states that consolidated juvenile justice and adult corrections is that over time, treatment programs gave way to punishment and imprisonment priorities. The successful emphasis in juvenile justice has been on prevention and rehabilitation rather than on adult criminal justice practices. Prevention and rehabilitation goals are better accomplished when the juvenile justice agency is teamed with other youth services such as social services, mental health treatment, schools, mentors, job training and other needed treatment. Tying this agency to the adult criminal justice system threatens to erode the great success we have had over the last 14 years.

Another troubling change this legislative session came from the closure of Edgecombe Youth Development Center, an innovative residential juvenile correctional facility that has drawn national attention for its proven outcomes of success. This new facility was one of four built across the state to offer evidenced-based treatment with compelling outcomes that provided closer proximity to the juvenile’s home so that family and community caregivers could continue to be engaged with the adolescent during treatment. This model of care has been very successful and a key component to the continued reduction of incarcerated youth in North Carolina. The justification for Edgecombe’s closure was that it was cheaper to expand the old dilapidated detention centers to house more adolescents in a central location of the state. However, in closing Edgecombe, we are destroying the successful juvenile treatment model that we know works and creates significant long-term cost savings and replacing it with our old model that isn’t nearly as effective, and this will begin to erode the significant strides we have made in this system.

Turning this recent North Carolina juvenile justice history around is an urgent matter. Research conducted by economists at Vanderbilt University and the state of Washington show that early interventions that prevent high-risk youth from engaging in repeat criminal offenses can save the public nearly $5.7 million in costs over the entire course of just one criminal career, to victims, criminal justice costs, and costs incurred by the offender.

Let us all work together on behalf of North Carolina children to restore the enormously effective balanced, integrated, and cost-beneficial approach to delinquency prevention and intervention that has been developed over the past 14 years. Juvenile justice history in our state proves that we are capable. Should we fail to act, history quite likely will not be kind us.


James C. (Buddy) Howell, Ph.D., is a criminologist and Pinehurst resident.