A look back at my first six months reporting on criminal justice and corrections in North Carolina

A look back at my first six months reporting on criminal justice and corrections in North Carolina

- in Law and the Courts, Top Story

I’ve gone to a lot of committee hearings over the course of my reporting career. They’re mostly insider baseball, in-the-weeds conversations between policy wonks and department heads. One time, I watched a virtual committee hearing live on YouTube that had just a single other viewer.

But the December meeting of the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee was different. It started like your typical committee hearing: a data presentation, a discussion, followed by an overview of state laws relevant to the topic at hand.

Deputy Sec. Billy Lassiter (Photo provided by the NC Department of Public Safety)

But then William Lassiter, the deputy secretary of juvenile justice, started telling committee members how short-staffed the state’s juvenile detention centers are. How things are so bad that they’re giving people bonuses just for showing up to work. That Lassiter himself, a member of the senior leadership team of a state agency, has worked shifts at the detention centers. That November was the first month where they’d hired more people than quit.

The juvenile detention centers are understaffed, Lassiter said, but they are also overflowing, at 102% of their capacity. If North Carolina wants to help the troubled kids who wind up in the detention centers, he explained, officials must hire and retain the employees to adequately staff them.

It’s the pay that’s the problem, Lassiter said. Starting annual salaries are $34,500, and there’s little room to go up from there. Legislators had agreed in a past session to offer juvenile justice employees a “step pay plan” that would allow staff to get raises over their career based on tenure and job performance. But that funding was unexpectedly stripped at the last minute in a state budget that lawmakers finalized behind closed doors.

It was an astounding, and confounding, committee hearing. State officials and legislators had agreed on a fix for attracting employees to work at the detention centers — the new pay structure — but lawmakers had, in Lassiter’s telling, apparently made a mistake, and not written it into law after all. They’d screwed up, a casualty of finishing the budget in the 11th hour.

I was the only journalist who wrote about Lassiter’s presentation on the staffing shortage. To me, that’s the value of Policy Watch. We publish stories others don’t. We produce deep analyses of state politics and policies that put those subjects in context. We write narratives that humanize complex subjects. We amplify voices that otherwise might not be heard in the halls of the legislature And we show up — whether at committee hearings, at town halls, at county courthouses, at prisons or at people’s houses. Not just in Raleigh or in the Triangle, but across North Carolina.

I’ve only been at Policy Watch for six months, but I’ve been busy building my beat and getting to know my new home. Here are some of my favorite stories since I started in June. But first, a series I hope to build on in 2023.

Court dispatches

I have driven all over North Carolina since moving here during the summer. Many of those drives have been to county courthouses to produce stories for an ongoing series called “court dispatches.”

Chatham County Courthouse (Photo courtesy NC Courts)

The premise is simple: I go to court and write about whatever’s happening that day. I’m not covering crime or whatever individual case is before the judge. Instead, I write about the systems and policies that keep people ensnared in the criminal legal system. I deem things newsworthy because they are ordinary, everyday occurrences, not because they’re a sensational crime with particularly lurid details. In short, I write about the daily injustices that permeate the justice system.

My first dispatch was in Chatham County. The judge there ordered a young woman to stay away from her critically ill mother, whom the daughter had allegedly attacked when she was in the throes of a flare-up of mental illness. But she was her mother’s caregiver, and her mom didn’t want her prosecuted. The mother and daughter wound up crying as they stood in front of the judge, powerless over the district attorney’s decision to allow the case to proceed.

“Can I hug my daughter?” the mom asked, a request the judge granted.

“You’re such a good girl,” the mother sobbed as she embraced her child.

That case remains ongoing. I never would have heard about it if I hadn’t been there in person.

Click here to read the other stories in this series. Have a suggestion about where I should go in 2023? Email me at [email protected].

Disenfranchised no more

Corey Purdie stayed busy painting houses as he talked with Kelan Lyons about being disenfranchised.

For this piece, Policy Watch partnered with Bolts, a digital magazine that reports on local elections and criminal justice issues. I had already written about the Superior Court decision that allowed people to vote if they were on state supervision for a felony, but I wanted to do a deeper dive on the ruling, and what it meant for the formerly disenfranchised to be able to cast a ballot again.

I drove to New Bern to meet up with Corey Purdie, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and who was trying to convince people to register to vote. As he painted a tiny home for a man living at a halfway house, Purdie told me what it’s like to not be able to cast a ballot.

“Not being able to vote and having that liberty taken away does something to the mental aspect of being able to have the confidence to move past any of the hurdles that they have in life,” he said. “Being told ‘no’ or being told you’re not allowed to use your voice is one of the most traumatizing aspects that can happen in a person’s life. Almost like telling a child to shut up.”

The story centered the voices of people like Purdie, those who have been disenfranchised after serving their time behind bars. The piece was a deep dive on the history of felony disenfranchisement in North Carolina — and the ways that regaining that right to vote can be empowering.

Click here to read about Purdie and others’ efforts to “restore hope in the vote.”

Incarcerated lobbyists

The Prison Resources Repurposing Act, a bill legislators considered in the 2021-2022 session, did not originate in some committee hearing or room in the Legislative Building. Its genesis was behind barbed wire and steel doors at Nash Correctional Institution.

Phillip Vance Smith II and Timothy Johnson, two men serving life sentences, wrote the proposal, pitching it as a way to reduce violence in prison by offering incarcerated people the ultimate incentive for good behavior: the chance to go home.

The bill ultimately didn’t make it to the governor’s desk. But the story isn’t about that. It’s about whether those sentenced to life in prison should have the chance to get out someday. It asks readers to consider whether a person’s efforts to better themselves while they’re in prison should earn them a chance to not die behind bars. Is the purpose of incarceration simply to punish people, or to rehabilitate them?

The piece centers the perspectives of Smith and Johnson, uplifting voices infrequently heard in the halls of power in the state capital.

“Many lawmakers will not speak to us because we are in prison. We understand that, but who else is in a position to offer solutions to problems a person sitting behind a desk does not understand?” Smith told me. “We would love to tell lawmakers about our plan, but we cannot get our foot in the door.”

Click here to read about Smith and Johnson’s efforts.

Juvenile justice in the Old North State

Earlier this year, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued two decisions with major implications for juvenile justice. The opinions allowed people given a “de facto life sentence” for crimes they committed when they were kids a chance to get out of prison years before their sentence would otherwise allow.

I wrote an in-depth story about the decisions. While reading the lengthy opinions, I realized the two men at the center of the cases were white, unlike the vast majority of minors sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina (which also happens to have the worst record in the country for racial disparities in life without parole sentences).

“The harsher the penalty, the more likely it is being given out to a Black or brown person,” said Ben Finholt, director of the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice. Finholt shared important data with Policy Watch showing that nine of 10 kids who have been sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina are Black.

The story I wrote underscored the importance of those decisions, putting those rulings in context and analyzing their implications — revealing that the decisions could offer a tool for combating racial disparities in North Carolina’s incarcerated population.

“I think that this opinion will go a very long way, in helping us to force the courts and force state actors to acknowledge and deal with that systemic and institutional racism that creates such grossly disparate outcomes for Black children,” said Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC.

Here’s a link to the story.

How expanding Medicaid could help those in jail 

One of the biggest issues legislators were considering when I joined Policy Watch was whether to expand Medicaid. Kody Kinsley, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told me Medicaid expansion would help thousands of the most vulnerable residents of the state — those with mental illnesses and addictions who cycle in and out of jail and prison.

Dorel Clayton

“Unfortunately, our jails have become the de facto mental health and behavioral health treatment facilities in our state,” Kinsley said. “Because we have so many people without insurance and the means to get access to care, when people are struggling with a mental illness, or they have a substance use disorder, often their disease leads to other behaviors that masquerade as crime.”

I wrote a story about the ways people with mental health conditions and those who struggle with addiction are particularly harmed by North Carolina’s narrow Medicaid eligibility requirements. I anchored that piece to the perspective of Dorel Clayton, a community health worker who helps people coming home from prison or jail. Clayton spent time behind bars himself, a consequence of how he dealt with life’s tragedies and traumas — experience that helps him connect with the people he serves.

“A lot of these people are actually doing the same thing I did, they’re self-medicating,” Clayton said. “They’re trying to escape the different hardships and different tragic things that have happened in their life.” 

Click here to read about how jails and prison are ‘the black hole of the mental health system’ — and how those with firsthand experience are uniquely qualified to help those caught in that hole.