NC law enforcement officials: We have no idea how many children are in adult jails

NC law enforcement officials: We have no idea how many children are in adult jails

"Raise the age" will soon become law, but for now, state does not track where 16 and 17-year olds are held

National Juvenile Justice Network President and Executive Director Sarah Bryer calls on Durham County to stop housing juveniles and adults in the same detention facility. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

How many of North Carolina’s children are currently locked up with adults in a county detention facility? How many were housed with adults last year? And the year before?

No one actually knows the statewide count. In fact, the last year that statewide information was made available was in 2013, when the N.C. Department of Public Safety (DPS) still kept track of county detention facility data.

The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association is tasked now with keeping those statistics, including how many jails still house juveniles and adults together, where they are located and how many children are locked up every year with adults.

“Because funding for each of those facilities is allocated through their respective county resources, there is no shared, collective data bank which tracks and maintains the counts you are seeking,” said Matt Jenkins, a public information officer for DPS’ Juvenile Justice Division.

The argument against housing juveniles with adults in jail resurfaced last week when advocates and community members gathered outside the Durham County Detention Facility to remember Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, who hanged herself last year from her cell window. She was 17 years old.

“We are here today as a group, as a unit, to celebrate and remember the life of Niecey,” said Ethan Ashley, who is a board member for the National Juvenile Justice Network. “But the truth of the matter is that no young person – and the data is very clear, the research is very clear, the lived experiences of young people is very clear – should be in adult prisons.”

Ashley said Fennel’s life created a shared responsibility among people to ask how they can help young people, particularly those who have been locked up.

“We all have a responsibility to ensure that no young person finds themselves in a situation where the only out is taking their own life,” he said.

As he and others spoke, inmates in their bright orange jumpsuits could be seen from two of the detention facility windows. They banged on the window to get everyone’s attention and waved. Those gathered below waved back.

And then they chanted.

“Niecey was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight,
We’re gonna fight all day and night until we get it right!
What side are you on my people, what side are you on?
We on the freedom side!”

Who is a juvenile?

Part of the reason it’s difficult to get information about juveniles and adults housed in county detention facilities is because North Carolina still defines a juvenile as someone under the age of 16.

Lawmakers recently passed language to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18 years old, but that measure won’t take effect until Dec. 1, 2019. Until then, state law only requires complete sight and sound separation for juveniles under the age of 16.

Once “Raise the Age” legislation is implemented in North Carolina, children 17 and younger will have to be housed in juvenile detention facilities until they are found guilty and sentenced as adults, according to William Lassiter, Deputy Secretary for DPS’ Juvenile Justice Division.

The Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee is currently working to make recommendations about where to house those juveniles in the future. Lassiter said the group has requested that 200 additional detention beds be put in place for when Raise the Age takes effect. Lawmakers, however, would have to fund the change.

Charges against juveniles are frequently dropped, dismissed or pleaded down to lesser crimes, and Lassiter said it’s more difficult to work with kids after they’ve been exposed to the adult detention facilities.

The Campaign for Youth Justice reports that youth who are transferred from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal system are 34 to 77 percent more likely than youth retained in the juvenile court system to be re-arrested for a crime.

It also reports that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to be abused.

Youth advocates and community members gathered last week outside the Durham County Detention Facility to remember the life of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, a teen who committed suicide while housed there last year. They also called for policy changes to prevent such a situation. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

No capacity to generate state-level numbers

The Campaign for Youth Justice also reports that, nationally, about 4,200 youth under the age of 18 are locked up in adult jails on any given day and about 1,300 are in adult prisons.

Jenkins provided information about the state’s prison facilities, of which DPS does keep track. As of Wednesday evening, there were five girls under the age of 18 housed in the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women and there were 69 boys of the same ages housed in the Foothills Correctional Institution.

“These are the only two prisons (out of 55) which house youth currently,” Jenkins said in an email. “Our state policy requires these youth (under the age of 18) to be fully segregated (sight and sound) and maintain no contact within the general adult population.”

While DPS doesn’t keep information about county facilities, Jenkins said each county maintains data about juveniles and adults being housed together. Statewide data, he added, would have to be compiled by the Sheriffs’ Association.

Policy Watch requested the information from the Sheriffs’ Association, but Executive Vice President and General Counsel Eddie Caldwell said his group would not gather it because it is not staffed at a capacity to do so.

He was quick to point out that none of the county facilities technically housed juveniles and adults, since the law prevented it – but his definition of juvenile was anyone under the age of 16. He said he didn’t know of anyone who had information about young people between the ages of 16 and 18 who were detained with adults or who might have compiled it in the past.

Caldwell added that if his group were to survey each of the nearly 100 facilities every time a reporter was writing an article and had a question or a student was fulfilling a school project, it would have to hire several full-time staff.

He also said if the facilities were surveyed, he wouldn’t anticipate a response from a significant number of them because they had so many requests to work on already.

“There’s nobody that’s mandated or assigned that task,” he said.

Since Niecey Fennnel’s death spurred the renewed conversation about juveniles and adults in the same facility, Policy Watch surveyed the Durham County Sheriff’s Office for data about its detained youth.

Public Information Officer AnnMarie Breen said Thursday there were 12 “youthful offenders” (youth between the ages of 16 and 18) currently in custody – that’s the average daily number for that facility.

The youth are housed in the same pods as adults but do not share cells with them. Because they are in the same pods, there is opportunity for interaction between the populations.

Breen said all detainees are locked down during sleeping hours, and the youthful offenders are in their own cell as required. She provided the policy guidelines Durham uses with respect to how adults and youth are treated separately.

There were 111 youthful offenders detained with adults in Durham in 2017 and 68 in 2016, according to Breen. The numbers, she added, indicate a total for the entire year and include detainees who spent at least one night in the detention center. The number does not take recidivism into account.

Change can happen now

Durham County made changes after a state investigation stemming from Niecey’s Fennel’s death found some negligence.

A report from the State Department of Health and Human Services found that officers had not followed state requirements for inmate checks, or “rounds,” and that the officer responsible for checking on Fennell failed to place her on a required supervision rotation after learning from another inmate that she might harm herself.

Breen said the Detention Center made a series of adjustments to better monitor its population, including upgrading software to help detention officers make rounds more efficiently, increasing training to include suicide response as well and increasing the training on mental health issues.

Advocates say it’s not enough.

“While we are encouraged to hear the county has finally started to take corrective action to address the physical hazards in the jail that contributed to the death of Niecey and many others, we remain very concerned that the county has taken no practical steps to address the larger issue of co-housing children and adults,” stated a letter from advocates to the Durham County Board of Commissioners. “Recent remarks from the Commission, made at the county’s June 25, 2018, meeting suggest finding permanent in-county placement solutions for these children is not a priority for the county. We urge the Commission to reconsider its position and to act with urgency to find a safe location for these children.”

The letter was sent from the National Juvenile Justice Network and signed by several other advocacy organizations.

Southern Coalition for Social Justice attorneys Ian Mance and Whitley Carpenter spoke at that meeting on behalf of Fennel’s mother, Julia Graves. They highlighted the county’s slow response to addressing hanging hazards at the jail and failure to meet federal sight and sound separation standards.

“SCSJ continues to advocate that children charged as adults in Durham County need to have their own physical space where they are not subject to threats and bullying from adult detainees,” states a media release from the organization.

Peggy Nicholson, co-director of SCSJ’s Youth Justice Project, said children were much more likely to be abused in adult jails and that the facilities were not set up to provide the right kind of education to kids.

“The types of services you would offer young kids is very different from adults,” she said, adding that youth were also learning from the adults around them in an adult facility environment. “From a public safety standpoint, it doesn’t make communities safer.”

She encouraged county facilities to house juveniles in separate pods from adults and to follow sight and sound separation guidelines.

“We are hopeful for state-level action but local counties and governments have complete control,” she said. “If a county wants to solve this problem, they don’t have to wait for the state.”