News: CJ Exclusives

Discipline rather than detention needed for many young offenders, experts say

Workshop co-sponsored by judicial branch and DPS discusses benefits of taking more parental approach to troubled kids to keep them out of prison as adults

Judge Julius Corpening (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
Judge Julius Corpening (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

CARY — North Carolina schools, which now refer more than 40 percent of all offenders in the state’s juvenile justice system, need to stop arresting and charging kids for minor, nonviolent offenses, state court and public safety leaders say.

Harsh, aimless punishment only pushes delinquent students further into patterns leading to adult crime, said Judge Julius Corpening, chief judge for North Carolina’s 5th Judicial District. A judge for 27 years, Corpening has seen many kids with troubled home lives and mental health issues — most of whom need discipline, not detention, he said.

A new state law is scratching out the “tough on crime” formula in favor of a more parental approach.

In June 2017, the N.C. legislature passed House Bill 280, legislation to raise the age for juvenile offenders. The law, which kicks in December 2019, pushes the juvenile age limit to 18 for those who commit low-level, nonviolent offenses. Juveniles 16 and older now are tried in North Carolina as adults, even for the most minor offenses. Another part of H.B. 280 established School Justice Partnerships, a program connecting families, schools, social services, law enforcers, judges, and mental health experts to keep kids out of the court system.

Experts and practitioners discussed the likely impacts of the law Wednesday, April 25, in Cary. The forum was co-sponsored by the state’s judicial branch and the Department of Public Safety.

High school dropouts are more likely to become involved with the courts, said LaToya Powell, assistant legal counsel for the N.C. judicial branch. By diverting kids from juvenile courts, the state is saving taxpayers money and probably preventing them from entering adult lock-up later, Powell said.

Of roughly 37,000 prisoners in N.C., about 17,500 never earned a high school diploma, data from the N.C. Department of Public Safety show.

New Hanover County has fostered the state’s first SJP under Corpening’s leadership. Since the program’s inception, the district has seen school-based referrals decrease by 47 percent.

Brunswick, Greene, Lenoir, and Wayne counties have followed suit. In May, N.C.’s Administrative Office of the Courts will release a set of guidelines to help all counties form their own SJPs.

No one is trying to use the program to let criminals off the hook, Corpening said.

“I used to be tough on crime,” he said, “and then I joked with my friends that I learned to read and found out it wasn’t helping at all.”

Dangerous juveniles should be treated as criminals, and the new law continues recognizing that. But a lot of kids make immature decisions; being an adolescent troublemaker shouldn’t be a crime, panelists said.

School fights and squabbles top the list of most common offenses, said William Lassiter, North Carolina’s deputy commissioner of juvenile justice. Disorderly conduct — such as disrupting a class — comes in second.

Mental health services, family counseling, and “tough love” punishments are better ways to handle the issue, Corpening said.

“We know that traumatized people traumatize people. We must return to discipline, like parents.”

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to correct an inaccurate paraphrase of LaToya Powell’s presentation. The original article stated that Powell said “high school dropouts are likely to become criminals.” That phrasing has been changed to accurately reflect her statement that “high school dropouts are more likely to become involved with the courts.” We apologize for the error.