Next Year, the Raise the Age Law Will Move More Teenagers Into the Juvenile Justice System. Durham Needs to Figure Out Where to Put Them. | Durham County | Indy Week

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Next Year, the Raise the Age Law Will Move More Teenagers Into the Juvenile Justice System. Durham Needs to Figure Out Where to Put Them.

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At thirty years old, the Durham County Youth Home is in need of some updates.

Engineers say the building itself—a fourteen-bed facility on Broad Street—is in good condition. It has a new HVAC system and door controls. But it also needs new plumbing, a new roof, and a new layout more conducive to separating detainees who are gang-affiliated or have mental or behavioral health issues.

And beginning December 1, 2019—when a new law directing sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds previously prosecuted as adults to the juvenile justice system takes effect—it's going to need more beds.

When the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, more commonly called Raise the Age, is implemented, North Carolina will no longer be the only state in the country to prosecute sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults. Department of Public Safety officials estimate at least 181 new juvenile beds could be needed across the state to accommodate the change—about double the current number.

In Durham last week, there were fourteen sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds being held in the county jail who would be held at least temporarily in the juvenile facility under the new system; there were 291 county cases involving sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds that would have been affected by Raise the Age in fiscal year 2017, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Faced with needed renovations and a growing population, Durham County officials had been looking at building a new, twenty-four-bed facility on the current youth home site for about $13 million. But, with Raise the Age approaching, they're now weighing whether to build even bigger to help meet demand across the state, or start over completely with a new site and a new approach to juvenile detention.

Plans to expand the facility have been delayed since 2000.

"They really don't have the space to do the kinds of things that need to be done to enhance these young folks' lives," says county commissioner Brenda Howerton. "They do a great job with what we have, but we don't put any resources into that building. We've got this beautiful jail here for adults. We owe our young people the same consideration."

The youth home primarily houses people under sixteen who are awaiting trial, but it also serves older teens who have violated previous release conditions. Director Angela Nunn says teenagers come to the youth home, which provides Durham Public Schools instruction, tutoring, and art programs, from all over the state. The average stay last month was about thirteen days.

Under Raise the Age, criminal cases for all sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds—excluding those charged with motor vehicle offenses—will begin in juvenile court. Teens charged with misdemeanors and the two lowest classes of felonies will be tried as juveniles and housed in juvenile facilities. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds facing more serious felonies will have their cases transferred to adult court once an indictment or finding of probable cause is made, so it's unclear how long those teens would be held in juvenile detention before their cases are moved. A Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee set up by the state has recommended that anyone under eighteen be held in a juvenile facility until their case is adjudicated, but until legislators settle that matter, places like the Durham County Youth Home don't know exactly how much they need to scale up to prepare for the law to take effect.

Not only could those teens require beds for longer periods of time while their cases go through clogged adult courts, they may also require separate accommodations.

"That is also going to be a large group of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who are accused of more violent or more serious offenses that can't be with the adult population but also probably will not be with the population tried in juvenile court," says Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. (Durham County jail director Anthony Prignano told commissioners last week that unless the jail population is greatly reduced, it won't be possible to construct a youth pod in that facility.)

Nunn says it would be unrealistic to renovate the youth home because the modifications are too extensive for it to remain in use while the work is being done. Instead, she'd like to see a new facility built with additional space to help troubled teens who have not been charged with crimes.

In a work session last week, commissioners asked whether the state should contribute to an expansion. County staffers say they have started "preliminary conversations" with DPS.

"We need to go into this with the concept that this is a state responsibility," says county commissioner Ellen Reckhow. "We need to take the position that we're not building this, we're putting forward a concept that could be done with their support."

Last year, legislators set aside $13.2 million for a new youth development center in Rockingham County, the bulk of the state's contribution dedicated to putting Raise the Age into place. That facility, though, isn't expected to open until 2022.

In the meantime, DPS officials plan to create a "holdover facility" by dedicating an additional thirty beds at the C.A. Dillon Youth Development Center in Butner, says spokesman Matt Jenkins. Jenkins says the agency is also "working with local leaders to explore additional possible detention beds throughout the state," but didn't mention Durham.

Howerton—inspired by an effort in Scotland County to turn a former prison into a youth center for justice-involved teens—suggested that county staffers look at what it would cost to revamp the abandoned, state-owned Durham Correctional Center off Guess Road into a youth home equipped with services like job training, life skills, and a garden.

"If it's just a holding tank, we're not doing anything to give them the tools when they come out to be effective in the community," Howerton says.

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