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NC juvenile justice system facing critical shortage and unsafe conditions for youth and staff at detention centers

The Cabarrus Juvenile Detention Facility is one of nine in the state.
North Carolina Department of Public Safety
The Cabarrus Juvenile Detention Facility is one of nine in the state.

Pay is one reason the shortage has worsened in recent years. Advocates are pleading with lawmakers to pass address the issue.

North Carolina’s Juvenile Justice system is facing an historic shortage of workers. Thirty-one percent – nearly one-third – of positions are vacant, meaning detention facilities are understaffed and current staff are swamped with caseloads. The shortage has led to an unsafe environment inside facilities and some juveniles are going without necessary rehabilitative services.

The majority of vacancies within the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) division are at juvenile detention and youth development centers. Counselors, behavioral specialists, and are all short on staff. JJDP Deputy Secretary William Lassiter says it’s the most pressing concern within his division.

"It’s not a safe environment right now in our facilities because our staffing is so short," Lassiter, who's led the department for more than two decades, said. "Staffing presence is what we use in juvenile justice to create an environment where both our youth and staff feel safe."

To fill the shortage within facilities, JJDP is calling on court counselors to fill temporarily fill those positions. But that pool of workers also has an historic shortage. A third of court counselor positions are vacant, creating a backlog in some counties.

Court counselors usually work in the community at homes, schools, and courts, meeting kids where they are. They’re the first step in the juvenile justice system, but now they're being called to work primarily inside facilities.

"These folks will typically meet with families and kids once there’s been an incident," Jennifer Dacey, chair of Craven County's Juvenile Crime Prevention Council (JCPC), said. "They have a lot of training, a lot of education."

Court Counselors complete intake assessments, make referrals to services, and provide counseling, but many are unable to perform their duties since the division began requiring court counselors to work inside JJDP facilities. Pam Stewart, chair of Carteret County’s JCPC, told PRE the county’s lone court counselor has struggled to make referrals and assessments since November, when he was pulled into a facility.

"We were starting to see that we needed court counselors, our community-based staff, to come into facilities and work," Lassiter said. "A lot of the staff are having to drive across the state, stay in a hotel room away from their family for several weeks at a time, so that we can be in staff ratio just to have a safe environment in those facilities."

The shortage also extends to direct-care workers, those who provide rehabilitative services for those with behavioral health issues, mental health diagnoses and substance use disorders. Two-thirds of behavioral specialist positions are vacant.

Providing care, especially within facilities, requires a highly trained staff to carry out intensive rehabilitative programming. Each kid at a JJDP detention center has a diagnosed mental health or substance disorder, the division said.

"The level of services required is high. Without the staff, we’re not providing the level of service we need for these young people to be successful when they get out," Lassiter said.

Thousands of kids go through the system each year. In 2021, 2,423 youths were held at juvenile detention centers. The average length of stay is 32 days. During the same time period, 181 youth were committed to youth development centers for an average saty of 11.8 months. The division and county-level JCPCs offer non-detention rehabilitation program like mediation, counseling and Teen Court for minor infractions. More than 14,000 youths were served by such programs in 2021.

Over the last decade, the state has experienced decreasing delinquency and recidivism rates. In 2021, the delinquency rate — measured as the number of complaints to JJDP per 1,000 kids — was 17.5%, down from 26% a decade earlier. Lassiter, Dacey, and Stewart worry if the shortage continues, this progress may slip.

Staff shortages were identified as a problem for both adult corrections and juvenile justice in a 2020 report, but the problem has worsened since for juvenile justice due to the pandemic and low pay.

"We lost a lot of staff during COVID," Lassiter said. "A lot were concerned about getting COVID, and they're just not coming back."

Compounding the problem is lower pay for juvenile justice workers compared to adult corrections. Historically, pay between the two divisions have been linked, but that changed in 2021 during the General Assembly’s budget process.

"They were under one umbrella and then were separated, and that’s where some glitch happened in the budget process, and it’s a little unclear to me exactly how that happened," Dacey said.

In 2021, to address the shortage, lawmakers were poised to pass a step pay plan for both juvenile justice and adult corrections workers in the 2021-23 budget. The step pay plan would reward experience with additional pay, incentivizing workers to stay. But during negotiations, adult corrections was elevated to a cabinet-level agency and took with it the funding for the step-pay plan.

"I don’t think it was intentional," Lassiter said. "It was just one of those things that was at the last minute when they were making the final negotiations about how to structure the new Department of Adult Corrections."

Lassiter says the step pay plan will signal to workers to remain with the division.

"We have a lot of employees in juvenile justice that have worked here for 25-30 years. They’re still only making three or four thousand above the minimum salary for that salary grade," Lassiter said.

In last year's short session, Lassiter asked the legislature to bring juvenile justice onto the step-pay plan, but it failed to gain traction. He, the division and county-level JCPCs are continuing to push for the step-pay plan. So far this year, 72 JCPCs have endorsed the plan, while 27 county Boards of Commissioners have passed resolutions in support, including in Craven, Carteret and Lenoir counties. In her pitch to the Craven County Board of Commissioners, Dacey said the pressure on current staff can only be endured for so long.

"These are people who, they do what they do because they care about our kids, and they want the best for the youth and in our state, Dacey told PRE. "They’re willing to make that sacrifice, but I think there’s a limit to what people are willing to do."

A house bill with 20 sponsors currently sits in a house committee, but a Senate budget that passed on Thursday includes bringing juvenile justice workers onto the step-pay plan.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.