New ideas on juvenile justice

Raleigh – An advisory council to the Department of Juvenile Justice has proposed a slew of reforms in response to a May audit that revealed widespread deterioration of facilities and services.

The State Advisory Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was required to make recommendations to the General Assembly after recent passage of the state budget.

Of 36 reforms proposed at a special meeting Wednesday , the one that provoked the most debate effectively shelves the governor’s $90 million plan to build three new juvenile jails by 2007. Gov. Mike Easley proposed the new construction based on department recommendations and auditors’ criticism of the state’s five youth prisons , all of which are more than 30 years old.

The prisons house 576 young people between ages 10 and 21 convicted either of felonies or of more than five misdemeanors.

"If we’ve learned anything in the 25 years I’ve been a judge, it’s that warehousing these kids doesn’t work," Halifax County Chief District Court Judge H. Paul McCoy Jr. told fellow council members. He supported multiple, regional facilities. "Even if it costs more, I think it will be worth it in terms of the kids’ lives," he said.

It might actually cost less, department Secretary George Sweat said. He said his office suggested replacing the three dilapidated prisons in Lenoir, Buncombe and Cabarrus counties mainly because the audit cited them as immediate hazards. He said they also face a time crunch: If construction began today, buildings wouldn’t rise for three years. Legislators are already asking to speed the process.

The department expects to have plans for possible new facilities by September, complete with price tags, in time for the council to make a recommendation to the General Assembly in November.

"If five to 10 proves better through study, that’s what we’ll do," Sweat said of the facilities.

The council’s next scheduled meeting is Aug. 21. Wednesday marked its third meeting in two years, although the governor is required by law to convene it quarterly. In May, guardians sued him and council co-chairman Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. on behalf of six children who they allege were failed by a dormant council.

Easley has yet to attend a council meeting in person, but Lake came Wednesday and called it productive. So did the attorney leading the children’s suit.

"Had this council not met, I think we’d still be looking at $90 million being wasted on a breeding ground for crime and recidivism," Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney Lewis Pitts said. "We’re pleased they’re meeting and rethinking this."

Leave a Comment