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Are North Carolina schools unfairly funneling youth into the juvenile justice system?

Are North Carolina schools unfairly funneling youth into the juvenile justice system?

Picture of Elizabeth Thompson
North Carolina Juvenile Justice system

The North Carolina Juvenile Justice system has faced a number of changes in the past two years.  It was the last state in the U.S. to pass “Raise the Age,” a law which finally included 16- and 17-year-olds under juvenile jurisdiction, in 2019. Right as this policy was implemented, the COVID-19 pandemic started in the beginning of 2020. 

As expected, criminal complaints for Juvenile Justice increased in 2020 due to the inclusion of older teens in the complaint count, according to the Department of Public Safety’s 2020 Juvenile Justice Annual Report. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this increase was less than the Division of Juvenile Justice’s pre-pandemic forecast of a 64% rise. Instead, there was only a 38% increase in complaints. 

The Division of Juvenile Justice attributed this to remote schooling, which vastly reduced the number of school-based complaints. School-based complaints made up just 17% of complaints in 2020, compared to 45% of complaints in 2019.

“Without in-person education taking place in the age group, disorderly conduct at school charges dropped, but an upward shift occurred in theft charges,” the Division of Juvenile Justice said in the report.

Disorderly conduct at school was the third-most common juvenile offense in 2019, with 1,156 complaints. In 2020, it wasn’t even in the top 10 juvenile offenses, with just 561 complaints.

There was also a 29% decrease in status offenses, such as truancy and runaways. There were 954 truant complaints in 2019, compared to 425 in 2020.

We know that a large majority of children in the juvenile justice system suffer from mental illness. In a survey conducted in December 2019, DPS found that 98% of the children in juvenile detention facilities had at least one mental health diagnosis, and a significant percentage have been involved in the foster care system. This means these young people likely have been exposed to a number of adverse childhood experiences, which sets young people up for significant health problems as they age.

Even though Black people make up about 23% of the state population, the 2019 report states 51% of juvenile complaints. Black children make up 63% of juvenile detention center admissions.

For my 2021 Data Fellowship project, I want to figure out just what these school-based complaints are and whether they are detailing a real threat or responding to a child in a mental health crisis.

I will be examining North Carolina’s juvenile justice system using the data that makes up DPS’s annual Division of Juvenile Justice reports, looking into what school-based offenses are, where complaints are coming from and which complaints lead to detention center admissions.

I want to know which areas and schools such complaints are coming from and what the behavioral health resources are available for children who are pushed into the juvenile justice system, before they get there.

Entering the criminal justice system can impact a child’s life before they’ve even gotten started. I’m looking into the data to understand why some children are disproportionately affected by the juvenile justice system. 

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