ADULT COUNTY JAILS STILL PUT KIDS IN SOLITARY
Some county jails are still keeping sixteen and seventeen year olds in solitary confinement for long periods of time, often for minor offenses. In March 2017, Uniece “Niecey” Fennell was found deceased, hanging in the Durham County Detention Facility (DCDF), the adult county jail. An investigation by the State Department of Health and Human Services found that detention officers failed to check her regularly and did not report a tip from another inmate that she was a threat to herself. Read more on the report here.
After series of articles in December 2016 by the Charlotte Observer focused on the practice in Mecklenburg Count’s Jail North, the North Carolina NAACP president Rev. Dr. William Barber called for an investigation. On March 8, 2017 another Observer article featured a March 2017 report from the ACLU of North Carolina showing high rates of solitary for youth, especially youth of color. North Carolina passed a law to raise the age of jurisdiction to 18 years old in June 2017, but the law will not go into effect until 2019, leaving thousands of kids still in adult jails and prisons.
RAISE THE AGE LEGISLATION IN NORTH CAROLINA
On June 20, 2017, the North Carolina legislature voted to raise the age of jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for most cases. The North Carolina House of Representatives passed the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, or H.B. 280, in May 2017, and the General Assembly eventually made the change as part of a vote on the state budget. The legislature allocated $1 million to implement the changes, and $13.4 million to build a new juvenile detention facility. Raising the age of jurisdiction will prevent kids from being held in adult jails and experiencing abusive practice like solitary confinement. The new changes won’t go into effect until 2019 and will still allow kids charged with certain felonies to be prosecuted in adult court.
New York State passed legislation to raise the age of jurisdiction in April 2017, which left North Carolina as the only state to charge youth as adults despite data and science showing that the practice is harmful. According to state advocates who have been fighting for years to make this change, there was finally broad support for reform in 2017. As State Representative McGrady, one of the NC bill’s sponsors noted, “[w]hat’s significant here is that this bill is supported by a broad coalition of groups, including some that have opposed the legislation in the past.” Supporters included conservative organizations and the faith-based community.
H.B 280 was based in large part on the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice’s (NCCALJ) Report, “Recommendations for Strengthening the Unified Court System of North Carolina,” which suggested raising the age of jurisdiction for sixteen and seventeen year olds unless they are charged with violent felonies. State Representative Duane Hall unsuccessfully tried to pass similar legislation twice in past years, but said H.B. 280 was finally successful because the state sheriffs association, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and NC Chief Supreme Court Justice Mark Martin supported the 2017 bill.
A wide range of North Carolina advocates supported the move, arguing that keeping kids out of adult jails will save the state millions of dollar. A national study by the Justice Policy Institute shows that when states charge youth in as juveniles, they see reductions in crime and better outcomes for youth. Experiences in several states reflect that raise the age laws reduce recidivism rates and help more youth lead successful lives, earn a living, and contributing to the local economy.
William Lassiter, the North Carolina Deputy Commissioner of Juvenile Justice, agreed that past reforms to the juvenile justice system led to short term cost increases, but ultimately to fewer youth in the system and savings of more than $40 million. In 2009, the state legislature commissioned a cost-benefit study of passing a law to raise the age of jurisdiction. The study, completed by the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2011 found high short-term costs but over $52 million per year in long-term savings and a 10% reduction in recidivism.
“Recommendations for Strengthening the Unified Court System of North Carolina,” a report commissioned by NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin and released in March 2017 by the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice (NCCALJ), recommended raising the age of jurisdiction to age 18 for all offenses except violent felonies. The report cited data and research that raising the age in North Carolina was likely to result in lower recidivism, less crime, and increased safety. The report also noted that “North Carolina data shows a significant 7.5% decrease in recidivism when teens are adjudicated in the juvenile versus the adult system.”
NC STATE AGENGY’S POLICY LIMITS SOLITARY FOR KIDS IN ADULT PRISONS
Until June 2017, North Carolina was the only state that automatically charges 16 and 17 year old youth as adults. In fact, youth will still be charged as adults until a recent law goes into effect in 2019. On June 15, 2016, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) announced plans to end the practice of putting youth under the age of 18 in solitary confinement by September 2016, citing the devastating harms of solitary confinement. In North Carolina, the DPS’s Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice oversees the adult and juvenile justice prison system. In 2015, a coalition of human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the ACLU of North Carolina, the University of North Carolina School of Law Human Rights Policy Lab, the UNC Center for Civil Rights, and NC Stop Torture Now sent a letter asking the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation into the use of solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons. Click here to read more on the DPS announcement.
Under the a new program being implemented by DPS, youth in modified housing should be out of their rooms for 45 hours per week for programming. Unfortunately, this still leaves a fair number of waking hours unaddressed. In our experience, the best policies limit isolation far more strictly and encourage facilities to keep youth involved in programming as many hours as possible per day.
In April 2017, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report on the use of solitary in DPS facilities. In 2015, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, DPS partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice as part of Vera’s national Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative to reduce its reliance on solitary confinement. North Carolina was one of five corrections systems selected to participate in the initiative, which will later include up to five additional systems. While Vera notes that North Carolina has taken steps to reduce solitary, including in programs for youth under the age of eighteen, the Report highlights serious concerns, including racial and ethnic disparities in the use of solitary. Read the report’s section on “youthful offenders.”