Author: Diana Kees, Deputy Communications Director
Per its usual practices, the Juvenile Justice Section of the N.C. Department of Public Safety is keeping safety – of its staff, of juveniles in its care, and of our state’s communities at large – in mind as it tackles the potential issues that could impact the state’s juvenile justice system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In reaction to the global coronavirus crisis, the Department of Public Safety’s juvenile justice leaders instituted changes to operations and procedures within juvenile facilities and offices beginning in mid-March. These operational adjustments include efforts to keep or bring facility populations as low as possible, but also to protect those juveniles who must be held in secure custody. These changes include:
- Suspension of visitation and volunteer activities at all juvenile justice facilities, until conditions are deemed safe.
- Suspension of entry of all non-essential volunteers, contractors and vendors.
- Placement of all juvenile detention center/crisis and assessment center admissions in medical room confinement for 14 days and until cleared by a medical provider to join the general population.
- Screening all juveniles prior to transportation to ensure no fever or respiratory illness.
- Hiring additional health care workers to oversee preparations and implementation of COVID-19 response plans.
- Handling necessary court hearings via videoconference, to reduce potential exposure opportunities for juveniles and staff members to COVID-19.
The Juvenile Justice Section regularly focuses on using alternatives to detention (such as electronic monitoring, home confinement, community-based programs, etc.) when appropriate for juveniles with nonviolent complaints who are awaiting adjudication, or trial, within juvenile court. During this pandemic, those efforts have been increased to include:
- Reviewing juvenile cases for those who might be appropriate for release, and bringing them to the attention of the detaining judges for approval of release to community-based services.
- Seeking other alternatives to detention for juveniles who committed minor violations of their probation. For example, requesting the court to allow a juvenile to serve court-ordered detention time for such a violation following the coronavirus crisis.
- Increasing the use of electronic monitoring and other alternatives to detention.
- Requesting judges rescind, in appropriate cases, outstanding bench orders for secure custody on juveniles with complaints for non-violent offenses.
These efforts have helped to bring down the daily juvenile detention population by 25% since the beginning of March, from 202 to 151 on April 13.
The Juvenile Justice Section also operates youth development centers (YDCs), a long-term dispositional option for juveniles following adjudication. During this time of crisis, Juvenile Justice officials are working to safely return juveniles committed to youth development centers to their home communities. William Lassiter, deputy secretary for Juvenile Justice, has assigned a team to review all juvenile cases that are eligible for release and work with community-based partners to ensure effective transitions can occur. Prior to releasing any juvenile from a YDC, staff must ensure that the home and community environments are safe, supportive of the juvenile’s continued growth, and able to meet the juvenile’s needs in the areas of education and mental health treatment. Since March 1, 9% of the youth development center population (16 juveniles) have been released from youth development centers back to their home or to a community-based step-down program.
“We have had no confirmed COVID-19 infections in North Carolina's Juvenile Justice facilities to date,” said Lassiter. “We are committed to doing everything possible to help ensure the health, safety and security of our employees, juveniles in our care, and ultimately the general public. I am greatly appreciative of all the efforts of our dedicated staff and community partners who are helping us serve our most at-risk juveniles in the safest and most appropriate settings.”
For more information regarding the actions taken in Juvenile Justice to address the COVID-19 crisis, visit https://www.ncdps.gov/our-organization/emergency-management/past-disasters/dps-actions-covid-19#juvenile-justice.