ROCKINGHAM — As North Carolina prepares to catch up to the rest of the country on passing legislation that aims to reduce the amount of teenagers tried in court as adults, Richmond County is preparing to meet the needs of the new crop of teens that will be funneled into its youth development programs.
The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act of 2017, which goes into effect on Dec. 1, 2019, raises the age which teens are tried as adults from 16 to 18, instead referring those 17 and under who are charged with minor offenses to programs that give them vocational training, teach them life skills and treat them for mental health issues.
North Carolina is the last state in the country to adopt this change, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.
“We want to make sure, as a county, that we have the programs that are ready for (the law to go into effect),” said Curtis Ingram, chairman of the Richmond County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. “We don’t want it to come up over night.”
In order to meet the needs of the increase in teens referred by the juvenile court system, consultants from the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council gave several recommendations to county social services, school and law enforcement leaders Monday at the Cole Auditorium which included:
• developing two new short-term residential programs;
• seeking $200,000 in funds (by applying for grants); and
• increasing funding to youth development programs to $5.4 million — all by fiscal year 2019-20.
Ingram said the law won’t “open the floodgates” on referrals come Dec. 1, 2019, but that they will be “phased in” to relieve some of the pressure on the treatment agencies. Additionally, teens will not be grandfathered in to the juvenile court system once the law goes into effect. A 16-year-old who commits a minor offense on Nov. 30 will still be charged as an adult, according to Calvin Vaughan, one of the Piedmont area consultants for JCPC in attendance on Monday.
Three youth development programs in Richmond County are currently receiving funding from JCPC: Richmond 4-H, Teen Court, and Leak Street Alumni, but Scott Stoker, another consultant, said that he would like to see six or seven funded in the next fiscal year.
Darrell Crump, coordinator for Project Focus (a program under Leak Street Alumni), said “there is a need in the community” for 16- and 17-year-olds to receive the services that similar programs provide. Project Focus gets referrals of high-risk teens from teen courts and guides them through a 16-week evidence-based curriculum that addresses issues like substance abuse and anger.
One additional program has applied for JCPC funding for the upcoming fiscal year but has not yet been approved, according to Ingram.
“It’s good that we’re lining up with the rest of the 49 states,” Ingram said. “I think it’s good for our teenagers — for a person who has worked with prisons for 20 years, I’ve seen 16-year-olds come in and I see what they go through.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]