WRAL Investigates

N.C.'s juvenile justice system faces challenges

Posted March 11, 2009

— At age 18, Matthew Charles Grant had already been convicted in adult court of felony charges of larceny and breaking-and-entering and had a history of juvenile convictions when he was charged with murdering a Wake County deputy in February 2004.

Deputy Mark Tucker, 49, died from a single shotgun blast to the face in a field near his Holly Springs home, where he happened upon Grant firing shots.

Juvenile Justice WRAL Investigates: Can juvenile offenders be rehabilitated?

Grant had been on probation for the felony charges and was not supposed to have a gun. Witnesses testified during his high-profile trial that Grant got scared and did not want to go back to jail.

More than four years later, Tucker's widow, Patricia Tucker, says Grant, who now is serving a life sentence at Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton, was failed by the legal system that oversaw him as a juvenile and adult offender.

"You've got someone who is well-known to the juvenile justice system, or even to law enforcement in particular, and somewhere along the line, he's fallen through the cracks," Tucker said.

Chief District Judge Robert Rader, who has presided over the juvenile court – generally for offenders 16 and younger – in Wake County for 10 years, tries to keep young people out of the adult system.

"But it's a challenge," Rader said, "and there's no easy answer for it."

Part of the reason it's a challenge, court officials say, is that the system is overwhelmed and not intended for violent crimes.

According to new numbers expected out April 1 from the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the juvenile crime rate has fluctuated over the past eight years, peaking in 2006 at 36.21 percent before declining last year to its lowest point at 31.52 percent.

In its 2007 annual report, the department reported 11,400 criminal complaints – including 1,119 about violence – from across the state, including 41 cases of first-degree murder, 43 cases of rape, 345 instances of robbery with a dangerous weapon and 1,964 breaking-and-entering offenses.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby says that, because the system was meant for petty crimes – such as shoplifting – it is shrouded in secrecy to protect juvenile offenders. Keeping their court records and case files private was intended to give them a fresh start in adulthood, whether it is to join the military, go to college or get a job.

Prosecutors and judges in the adult court system have access to juveniles' felony records, but prosecutors need a court order to review them. Then, it can be time consuming pulling those files, Willoughby says, because there is centralized statewide system to manage them.

It is at the discretion of the presiding judge whether to allow them in open court.

"I think this is a dirty little secret in our court system," Willoughby said. "We've got violent juveniles out there. We're not able to deal with them, and we don't even know who they are."

On the job since January, Linda Hayes, North Carolina's new secretary of juvenile justice, is still taking stock of what changes need to be made and what the department can do better.

One thing it does well, she believes, is treat juvenile offenders convicted of certain types of crimes instead of only punishing them.

Under the treatment model – based on always having a learning experience, regardless of the situation – Hayes says the number of juveniles who commit another crime has decreased from 52 percent to 33 percent.

"If we can truly take care of it in the prevention area and we can truly take care of it on the front end, then we will not feed the adult prison system," Hayes said.

Rather than detention, the state is also focusing more on community-based outreach programs, education and job-skills training.

"Twenty (or) 30 years ago, these folks would have been locked up and put in detention as a way of dealing with their crimes, and now, it's our responsibility," said Michael Rieder, former executive director of Haven House, a community-based nonprofit for troubled youth in Wake County.

Rieder, now a deputy secretary with the juvenile justice department, says he believes juvenile offenders need to be held accountable for their actions and need to pay back their communities.

Among young people who go through the juvenile court system, approximately 30 percent become repeat offenders, but once they are incarcerated, the rate goes up considerably.

Rieder says his program serves about 1,400 young people each year, many of whom the juvenile court system refers. Of those who complete the program, 90 percent do not commit another crime, he says.

"We've got all kinds of data that says it works, but it doesn't work for every child," he said. "And some kids are dangerous, and protecting the community is something we're all accountable for."

Sixteen-year-old Brandon Griffin – who has been arrested and convicted over the past year for trespassing and assault – says his journey through the juvenile court system has been a rocky one. He says he has been to court more times than he can remember and spent 30 days in a youth detention facility.

He's now on probation, and he says he's on the road to living right.

"It's taught me a lot," he said. "It's taught me how to be a better person in life and accept responsibility and stuff like that."

But is the juvenile justice system doing enough to help juveniles like Griffin?

Tucker believes more intervention for Grant at a younger age might have saved her husband's life.

"Obviously, we failed him somewhere," she said. "Had something maybe been able to have been done when he was younger, that could have kind of turned him around or prevented him from leading this life as an adult criminal."

Everyone admits, however, that some juveniles can't be rehabilitated.

"There is probably a very small percentage," Hayes said. "But I will never give up on that small percentage."

"You hate to throw in the towel on any kid," Rader said. "But we do run into kids (on whom) we exhaust all efforts."

Griffin and his family have moved to a new neighborhood in Garner where he doesn't face the gang and drug issues he faced in Raleigh.

His mother, Faith Griffin, says she believes her son will not offend again.

"(I hope) that he continues to do well, that he continues to listen, and to be a good leader like he is, and not a follower," she said.

And he has a wish for himself.

"I'm going to turn it all around, try to go to law school, become a lawyer," Griffin said. "Maybe the next time I step in (the courtroom), I will be here for good."


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  • jbco Mar 12, 2009

    Another quick point is that if members of the general public came to court on any given day, what they would see would shock them. One DA handling 500 cases in one day with no access to a computer to look up their past record to begin with! Justice employees have to fight for a bin to put papers in! The first step is to properly fund and outfit the court system, probation system, prison system with the basic tools they need to be effective and efficient. All the policy changes in the world won't do a thing until some money is spent. For heaven's sake, the court system still stores criminal records on a DOS system! And that system only displays the charges in that county! It is almost impossible to keep track of offenders using the incredibly outdated system in place now.

  • jbco Mar 12, 2009

    I think people should pay careful attention as we go through these budget woes. Cuts to the already GROSSLY underfunded justice system, juvenile and adult, could create some real problems. Crime tends to increase across the board during a recession. Those who work in the justice system already make 1/4 or less of what their counterparts in the private sector do. While there are certainly procedural and administrative issues that need to be addressed but one way to improve the justice system is to raise the pay of those who work there. Low salaries push the brightest minds out of government work quickly. Shouldn't those who teach our children, enforce our laws, and prosecute our criminals be paid somewhat competitive salaries. Until they are, government agencies will continue to scrape the bottom of the barrel for employees and struggle to retain the ones they have.

  • Adelinthe Mar 12, 2009

    I think all of NC's systems have been failing the populace for a long time, not only the juvenile justice system, but the adult one as well as the mental health system.

    It's like no one's watching or that no one cares; like they want to spend as little money on those things that haven't affected their own families.

    What a shame!

    God bless.


  • Heavensent Mar 12, 2009

    Not all kids can be rehabilitated. However, I would rather "attempt" to rehabilitate the youth rather than give up on them. The parents also need to be held accountable. I hope Gov. Perdue realizes this when making the budget. The juvenile justice system is already underfunded. Kudos to those who are with these juveniles. Don't know why my earlier post didn't go thru.

  • rcmonster1 Mar 12, 2009

    Also I am a beleiver in capital punishment and when they committ a serious crime such as this one. There is no excuse for his actions " he was scared and did not want to go to jail " so you murder someone. He at that point proved he knew right from wrong. We need to ease the burden on our prison systems by giving the death sentence instead of life in prison. The criminals who get life are a heavy burden on us and should not be allowed to be. I am deovted to my family,my friends,and our country and beleive we should be protected by our law makers from repeat offenders no matter how old they are.

  • rcmonster1 Mar 12, 2009

    Okay I am not an advocate of lets slap their hand and let them go. When they go to jail let it be just that, take away their tv, weight rooms and put them to cleaning out ditches and parks everyday. The problem starts at home with no discipline from their parents and then they take up for the juvenile when they committ a serious crime. We also have our law makers in Raleigh trying to make the legal age for a juvenile to be tried and convicted as an adult to the age of eightteen.What is wrong here? They are tried several times as juveniles and convicted then they continue to committ crimes. We need to restructure the punishment for these young adults and make it so they will not want to committ future crimes. We should also allow the courts to take into consieration if they have been convicted as juveniles when they are charged as adults and are being sentenced. If their parents dont like the out come of their childrens actions they can do their time and take their punishment.

  • George Costanza Mar 12, 2009

    Here is my take and not a popular one. One of the biggest problems with ALL justice systems is that we have gone away from the punitive and tried to make them rehabilitative systems. Sorry folks it hasn't and won't work. Look at the poll results on the WRAL front page. Many people agree. To change behavior we have to change consequences if we want to change the behavior. Since behavior is a choice only negative consequences will change the choice. Many people cannot be rehabilitated.

  • RonnieR Mar 12, 2009

    It is not up to Lamb's usual high standards. In NC, a juvenile is 15 yoa and younger, yet the story mentions several youthful offenders (16-21). It doesn't make a lot of sense.

  • WooHoo2You Mar 11, 2009

    Over 100 posts yesterday at this time for a story the same age saying how increasing class sizes and cutting the budgets back on schools has no effect on anything. Let me guess this kid (and murderer) was a drop out... The underpaid, over worked, and most likely substandard teachers he had for his entire life ignored and neglected him because it was easier to "teach" the three kids in class with okay lives that wanted to learn.

    A teacher is no replacement for good parenting but bad parenting is no excuse for bad education.

    I am not excusing this kid / man / murderer but far few less like him born in countries with a better educational system than we have. (look it up) For the "Greatest Country in the World" our standards are below some 3rd world countries and our violent crime is far beyond.

  • 27615 Mar 11, 2009

    Here's my thoughts on the criminal justice system. If a violent crime is committed or if someone is a repeat offender (i mean over and over and over and over again) and without I doubt we know that person is guilty we should just take them out back of the courthouse and put them down. Why put them in jail if they're going to get out and do the same thing again or worse. Why pay to keep them in prison when we could just execute them. It is such a simple solution to a huge problem. Maybe something like a three strike rule and on the third strike you die. If people knew the third time they did something they would be killed you would hope a lot of them wouldn't do it in the first place and for the crazy ones who don't care if we kill them, then we both win.