The State of North Carolina has now joined the rest of the country in treating 16- and 17-year-olds in the criminal justice system as juveniles rather than adults – and that could mean big changes for Guilford County government in everything from the jails to court services to the school system.
The most obvious change – once the law takes effect in 2019 – is that many 16- and 17-year-olds kept in Guilford County’s two jails would instead be held in the Juvenile Detention Center at 15 Lockheed Ct. near Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA).
Guilford County already has the largest center in the state for youth offenders and it’s possible that that 44-bed facility could nearly double in size and become a big revenue generator for the county if county leaders decide that’s the right course of action.
Currently, the state pays Guilford County $122 a day to hold juveniles from other counties, and Guilford County gets another $122 a day from the local governments that send the juveniles here for safekeeping. That totals $244 a day for the county.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said the new law change certainly means Guilford County should take a serious look at expanding its facility – especially if the state is going to help pay for that expansion to meet the new demand.
Even before the law passed, Guilford County was considering expanding its Juvenile Detention Center to address the large statewide need for more juvenile detention beds, but now that move looks even more appealing.
“We’re one of the biggest in the state,” Lawing said of the existing facility. “If the daily reimbursement rate from the state stays the same or goes up, then I think it would pay us to expand; but, really, part of that formula would be how much in capital dollars would we get from the state for capital expansion. Would it be 100 percent? Would it be 50 percent? That would have a big impact on the feasibility of it.”
The county manager said one thing that needs to take place in the coming months is solid “coordination” across the state between local governments that run juvenile detention centers. He said that they need to collectively decide which ones should expand.
“I haven’t seen final numbers since we are closing out [the fiscal year] but there is a chance our revenue exceeds our cash – it did last year,” Lawing said of Guilford County’s juvenile detention facility. “We used to not break even at all until we started taking in kids from other counties. And Forsyth County closed their facility, so they are sending those kids to us.”
He said the current state budget for 2017-2018 doesn’t include money to pay for Guilford’s potential expansion but those dollars might be included in coming years.
“I don’t think there’s any money in there this year to help counties unless it’s hidden in pockets,” Lawing said. “Hopefully the DOC [North Carolina Department of Corrections] will pull all the counties together and say, ‘OK, who’s interested in expanding? What are the conditions in your facility? Is it designed to expand? Do you have the land? Who’s going to want to do this?’”
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said some things he’s heard suggest the state will help the counties bear the cost of the new legislation.
“Every time I heard a discussion about the General Assembly, they were asked, ‘Are you going to include a hold harmless clause’ and it’s my understanding that that is going to be taken seriously by the General Assembly.”
Payne said it’s not known what the state legislators will decide but those discussions have been promising in that regard.
North Carolina Rep. Jon Hardister said that state legislators were very interested in addressing the costs that counties and cities will incur as a result of the implementation of the law.
“We don’t want this to be an unfunded mandate; we want this to be a partnership,” Hardister said this week.
He said that the state was planning to work with counties, cities and others affected over the next couple of years to assess the costs of the change as it is implemented.
“That’s why we put the effective date out there,” Hardister said of the 2019 start date.
He said that will give everyone time to adjust and for state legislators to get a better idea of funding costs. Hardister also said $25 million was included in the 2017-2018 state budget to help get the program underway in this first years of transition, but said it will likely cost more in coming years.
“That means we’ll probably have to address it in 2018 and 2019,” Hardister said. “We’ve been very careful about it and very cognizant of what it will cost.”
Hardister added that he’s optimistic that, over time, counties, the courts and the states will save money from the program because handling 16- and 17-year-olds in this manner – rather than throwing them in jail – should give them a better chance to become productive members of society.
Hardister also pointed out that 16- and 17-year-olds who commit very serious felonies, such as murder, will still be held in jails under the new law.
Payne said one interesting change that the new law may precipitate is a potential shift in how sheriff’s deputies working the school system handle students.
“It could change how school resource officers react,” Payne said. “In practical terms, resource officers are going to tell you, ‘If I step in here, this guy’s going to real jail.’ There could be more hesitancy than if they are going to go to juvenile detention.”
Doug Logan, the director of Guilford County Juvenile Detention Services, said there’s a lot in the legislation that still needs clarification.
“A lot of particulars haven’t been explained to me,” Logan said.
He said a major meeting in Winston-Salem is being held next month to provide some clarity for affected parties.
The current juvenile facility in Guilford County has 44 beds and, this week, about 30 beds are occupied. According to Logan, those numbers are always lower during the summer because so many kids get in trouble in school. The county’s detention center generally remains at or near capacity during the school year, he said.
Logan said he was currently working with the Guilford County Budget Department to look at the cost and feasibility of expanding the detention center to take on even more delinquents from outside the county. He said that, as it is now, Guilford County takes in youths from all parts of the state. Guilford County is the go-to facility for many counties in central North Carolina, and, where there is an over flow from coastal or western counties, the facility sometimes ends up holding those youths as well.
The new law goes into effect in 2019, but if Guilford County officials want a major expansion of the Juvenile Detention Center to be up and running by then, they would need to start taking action relatively soon.
“There are many moving parts,” Logan said, adding that state and county officials are studying how many youths are being held in jail around North Carolina and how many local governments might want to use an expanded Guilford County facility.
“These are some numbers we have to look at before we say, do we need a 20-bed, a 30-bed, a 40-bed expansion?” Logan said.
He also said the change will mean new staff training and procedural changes because controlling 16- and 17-year-olds can be a lot different than keeping a 12-year-old in line.
He said that, for instance, the detention center currently has one 20-year-old man who entered when he was 15 years old. He just turned 20 and remains in the detention center after five years due to holdups in the legal system.
“You’ll need more specialized training,” Logan said in regard to handling older juveniles, adding that, even under the current law, the “kids” held there are sometimes “6 feet tall and weigh 240 pounds.”
The new law will also mean a reduction in jail populations around the state, but Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said it shouldn’t make a large difference to his jail operations. On Friday, July 20, there were 20 juveniles – 16- and 17-year-olds – held in jail in Guilford County.
In addition to now increasing the size of the jail rolls, the 16- and 17-year-olds require special attention from Guilford County detention officers due to laws that afford extra protection from rape and abuse for inmates under the age of 18.
“We end up having to keep them separate and out of line of sight of other inmates,” Barnes said.
According to Barnes, the magistrates and other officers in the court system will have to make changes as well. For instance, the names of youth offenders under 16 aren’t made public now and, starting in 2019, that will hold true for 16- and 17-year-olds in the legal system as well.
Many Guilford County Schools staff are off for the summer; however, when school officials get back into the swing of things this fall, they will start to asses the implications of the new law as well.
Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr said the school officials haven’t explored the implications of the change for the school system.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to review and discuss this yet,” Carr said.