During a five-year period, juvenile crime rates in Mecklenburg County – and across North Carolina – have declined, suggesting that recent solutions offered by legislators and policymakers to combat teen crime and gangs are working.
While overall violent crimes have declined by nearly 14 percent in the state since 2002, the number of teens younger than 16 charged with violent crimes has dropped by nearly 37 percent. Property crime dropped 4.5 percent during that period, but the arrests among teens younger than 16 was down about 40 percent.
In Mecklenburg County, the juvenile crime rate mirrored state reductions, decreasing each year between 2007 and 2010. The county saw a slight jump in juvenile crime last year, but that rate of 29.72 per 1,000 youths age 6 to 15 was still below the 2007 rate of 31.75.Juvenile crime also is down nationally, but in North Carolina the downward trend is more than double the national average. That has prompted some to call the state a model for dealing with juvenile delinquency and youth crime prevention.
By emphasizing “state-of-the-art approaches to prevention, intervention, treatment and education” for troubled youth, “North Carolina has developed a national model worth emulating,” said Harvey Milkman, a professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University in Denver and a consultant for substance abuse and criminal justice treatment centers.
The state is now locking up far fewer teens than it did a decade ago, finding treatment alternatives to its former system of training schools.
Rehab vs. punishment
Partnerships between the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and community programs have led to an array of mental health intervention and substance abuse treatment, counseling and mentoring, along with rehabilitation for juveniles and their families, including court-ordered parenting classes.
In Mecklenburg County, about 1,500 youths participate each year in Right Moves for Youth, which aims to help middle and high school students improve their school attendance, behavior and academics.
Executive Director Tayuanee Dewberry credited juvenile crime reduction to the collaboration between community agencies and the juvenile court system’s focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
“There are resources wrapped around these kids that weren’t previously here,” she said.
A majority of students participating in Right Moves for Youth are referred by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. About 5 percent are referred directly from the court system, but a higher percentage of the youth have had some involvement in the system, Dewberry said.
“We make them aware of their alternatives and what they can accomplish if they avoid the system,” she said. “Once they get in the system, it’s hard to get them back on the right track.”
Dewberry also praised Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, saying they often work to avoid putting youth in the system by giving them opportunities to participate in programs that require them to pay restitution while receiving counseling.
For example, Dewberry said, if a juvenile is caught vandalizing a building, police might take him home and make his parents aware of the situation. But rather than making a formal arrest, the officer may set him up in a deferral process that sends the young person to alternative programming rather than juvenile court.
“It’s doing amazing things in this community,” Dewberry said.
Juvenile Justice Reform Act
Nearly 15 years ago, the state legislature voted to revamp the state’s approach to juvenile delinquency prevention and justice. State officials adopted a program that would treat juveniles according to the seriousness of their crimes, the risks they posed and their personal histories.
The change was started by the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 1998. In 2003, an audit by former State Auditor Ralph Campbell pushed the state to close its old training schools and build new ones, now called youth detention centers.
In that audit, Campbell reported that the older reform schools were “decrepit, unsafe, unsecure” and that children were not getting treatment. The Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center and the Samarkand Youth Development Center both closed last year, part of budget cuts across state government.
Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield, noted that in 1998, state legislators were calling for 208 additional beds to house the state’s juvenile offenders. “This year, we closed one of the (youth detention centers) because we did not need the extra beds,” he said.
The state’s juvenile justice philosophy changed after the 2003 audit, and now relies more on therapeutic alternatives, said William “Billy” Lassiter, a state juvenile justice spokesman.
“Training schools used to be much more focused on incarcerating kids in a prison environment,” he said. “Youth detention centers focus on setting up treatment and providing children mental health counseling, developing social skills, life skills and educational needs.”
Lassiter said the effects of the reforms kicked in around 2006, when the number of children being sent to the newly named detention centers started to drop.
In 1998, for example, the state was locking up 1,400 children each year in training schools. Today, at the state’s four youth detention centers, the count is about 300.