State Auditor Ralph Campbell

If State Auditor Ralph Campbell’s scathing report on the sorry condition of North Carolina five juvenile prisons doesn’t get the attention of elected leaders, then they might want to look for another line of work. The audit raises potentially life-threatening safety issues, and questions the state’s competence and commitment to operate effective rehabilitation and education programs for troubled youths as well as merely to keep those young people off the streets.

Make no mistake, the youths sent to juvenile prisons in Swannanoa, Concord, Butner, Kinston and Eagle Springs are not merely naughty kids. They have been sentenced by juvenile courts after being found guilty of felonies or at least five misdemeanors. Had they been over the age of 16 when they were convicted, they would be in the state’s adult justice and corrections system.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was created five years ago to bring Cabinet-level attention to the problem of youthful crime. While the number of youths in the prisons has fallen by 55 percent over that period, mostly because of smaller and more localized efforts, the amount of money spent has steadily increased. The state now spends $60,978 annually on each juvenile inmate while spending only $29,269 per adult inmate held in maximum security.

A significant part of the problem is the facilities’ run-down condition. All of them are at least 30 years old. Fire alarm systems do not work properly. Some buildings have had to be abandoned because of asbestos. Some units have no fences. The department has asked for $40 million in state funds this year for building repair and renovation.

One result of the crumbling infrastructure and outmoded designs is that the units cannot even keep inmates safe and off the streets. Last year 134 inmates tried to escape and 82 succeeded. There have been reports — and a subsequent lawsuit — alleging that inmates have been molested and injured.

The system also is not receiving the guidance and leadership it needs. Governor Easley and Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. head a council that is supposed to give the program oversight, yet except for one meeting in February that neither man attended, the group had not met in two years.

Auditor Campbell recommends that three new juvenile prison units be built for $90 million. Money is tight this year and legislators justifiably want to see more accountability from juvenile justice officials before they open the state purse. They also should look for evidence that the units are more than warehouses filled with young people who one day will be back on the street — older and quite possibly meaner, without the benefit of decent education or rehabilitation.

But the legislature itself is not without blame. The epidemic of budget cutting in recent years, as opposed to responsible and targeted tax increases and the elimination of tax loopholes, helps explain the deplorable physical conditions that make it difficult for staff members to control tough kids, much less teach and counsel them. One shocking result is that half of the young people leaving the system cannot even read.

Campbell’s audit envisions adequate facilities, efficient education and rehabilitation programs, competent staff and teachers, and state leaders who provide more than lip service. His vision is encouraging even as his audit is worrisome.

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