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I had to analyze the data but also look past it to get the story on North Carolina’s juvenile justice system

I had to analyze the data but also look past it to get the story on North Carolina’s juvenile justice system

Picture of Elizabeth Thompson
The Turin Department of Juvenile Justice. Italy’s approach to juvenile justice provided a useful contrast and source of ideas fo
The Turin Department of Juvenile Justice. Italy’s approach to juvenile justice provided a useful contrast and source of ideas for the solutions-oriented story in the author’s series on North Carolina.
(Photo by Elizabeth Thompson)

As a journalist covering prison health during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve often thought about the factors that lead to incarceration, and if there is a way to prevent them— to spare people the trauma of incarceration. 

The “school-to-prison pipeline,” or the idea of schools funneling children into the justice system, immediately came to mind.

The topic was timely. In 2019, North Carolina was the last state in the country to pass “Raise the Age legislation in which children under 18 would largely be tried as children, not adults. Reports from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety predicted the state would see large increases in North Carolina’s juvenile justice population as a result of this addition.

However, when I looked at the state’s annual juvenile justice report from 2020, I noticed something interesting in the data: school-related juvenile justice complaints plummeted, despite the implementation of “Raise the Age.”

I requested data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and downloaded publicly available data from both the North Carolina Courts and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. With data training from my 2021 Data Fellowship in the statistical software packages R and RStudio, I analyzed that data, approaching it from multiple directions and visualizing the results. I also used software packages such as Tidyverse, janitor and lubridate to clean the data and perform my analysis.

What I found was a trend throughout the state: When schools were largely closed during the pandemic, school-based juvenile justice complaints plummeted in the majority of North Carolina counties. After a decade of school-based complaints making up almost half of total juvenile justice complaints, they fell from close to half of the complaints during the 2018-2019 school year to 30% of complaints during the shortened 2019-2020 school year.  They fell further during the mostly virtual 2020-2021 school year to just 7% of overall complaints.

That was a stunning figure, but it wasn’t the whole story.

The most important lesson I learned from this project was that the data was just a glimpse of the full picture.

I talked to experts who work with the most vulnerable children who often get caught up in the system — children with disabilities and children of color, specifically Black children. 

They shed light on the kind of behavior that generally gets kids caught up in the justice system. School-based complaints tend to be incidents that are minor — things like getting into fights or disrupting class. The presence of school resource officers (SROs) means that these minor incidents get escalated into charges that propel children into the criminal justice system. But when children were not in school, there were fewer opportunities to be more harshly disciplined by the SROs. 

The blip caused by the pandemic did show one thing, which is the possibility of a world where schools did not have a role in the justice system. Experts provided key context, though: this drastic decrease in complaints was not here to stay. In fact, they told me that they were seeing an increased number of children requesting to use their services.

It is likely, they said, that the pandemic would increase disparities that existed before the world shut down in 2020. I went on to investigate the impact of the pandemic on the state’s most vulnerable children, as well as the correlation between literacy and incarceration, after a source pointed it out to me.

I chose to write a fourth story in this series, zeroing in on potential solutions.

Another lesson I learned was that it’s easy to find the problems, but you should also look for solutions — everywhere. 

A colleague at North Carolina Health News had previously published an award-winning series about how countries in Europe handled the opioid epidemic with harm reduction techniques years before they became more common in the United States. I knew to keep my ears peeled while I was on vacation in Italy this past winter for story ideas.

It was on this that I found the inspiration for my last story in this series, examining restorative justice approaches, which entail bringing together the affected parties and talking about how to solve the situation. I learned through talking with Italian friends that the juvenile justice system in Italy incarcerates fewer children than North Carolina does, even though Italy has almost six times the population. I wanted to know why.

The answer lies in a culture that takes community responsibility for crimes committed by youth and the integration of restorative justice practices in its juvenile justice system. After I did some research, I found some groups in North Carolina using similar techniques and practices.

That final story was republished by the Solutions Journalism Network, thus widening the impact of the series by giving it exposure in publications such as Yahoo News and The 74.

The Data Fellowship was a lesson in time management as much as it was a lesson in data journalism.

I was able to publish my series well before the fellowship’s due date because I was well-organized throughout, something that was impressed on me by fellowship coach Christian McDonald, and a training session with ProPublica’s Kathleen McGrory.

Here are a few key ways I did this:

  • Making a folder in Google Drive specifically devoted to the project, with different documents outlining my project goals and weekly check-ins. 

  • Scheduling weekly meetings with my manager, to keep her aware of the work I was doing and to brainstorm areas when I felt stuck. It was in a meeting with my editor that she suggested I get my head out of the data and head out in the field to figure out the context behind the numbers I was crunching.

  • Blocking out time each Friday morning just to work on my project.

  • Organizing the infrastructure for success in October, right after the fellowship training. That meant I was thinking about the project regularly throughout the six months leading up to publication.



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My step son was sentenced to prison I think it was in 2013 . His release date in the justice system was to be released in 2022 .My wife had her hopes up and I guess his case worker had put in the paper work in because a Po from our home town had came and approved where he would be released to . This had my wife very happy and she hads had her health declining . The past few weeks up till right before his release. Then there was a bomb she'll put on her shoulders . She don't no which way to turn for help she had got a call from her son . The day before his release from prison that the system had made a mistake on his release . He would be staying 6more years . My wife has that bomb dgrop right in her lap .. what I'm asking is there anyway we may get some kind of help with this . Where her son could come home . It worry's me that it's more than her health needs to ight now and I thought our system would be set up p to where family's would know when there loved ones would be released . I know everyone should have today for breaking the law . I just worried for other family's that have stuff like this happen to them . Where to find out why get loved ones hopes up and thinking that there loved one was been released just to be told something different

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I work for the NCDPS and I also have a son that has been placed in NC Juvenile Justice System. A minor situation that escalated. He is African American with several disabilities. It was recommended that he do six months on Oct 13, 2021. They left with him that day, we were under the assumption that he would return home in April of 2022; however, that was not the case. It is June and he is still there. The laws with Juvenile Justice are written different. I feel as if there should be specifications set in place when the time is handed down to these kids. The parents should be informed at the time the sentence is handed down, that six months is not just that. Once my son arrived to detention he was advised that there was no six month program he would do a year up to 15 months or his eighteenth birthday. Now, with that being said, I know that we all have to pay for things we do (criminal,etc), but when adults are given time. They go in completed their time and that is the end of it. The justifications they give is "DJJ statues are set up different than the Adult system". That shouldn't be, these kids are not receiving what they need. They are short staffed, there is a rise in COVID cases (staff), etc. I know you did not expect all of this, but when you have no on else who will listen to the concerns of the parents, where do we turn. I have invested time in reading articles and information on DJJ which blow my mind. Your article pulled at the strings on my heart. DJJ statement reads "A passion for changing the lives of NC's youth". Where is the "PASSION" and the change they are making in the lives of the youth that they house, as of now I have not seen it to be very inspiring.


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