WRAL Investigates

N.C.'s juvenile justice system faces challenges

Posted March 11, 2009 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated March 11, 2009 7:11 p.m. EDT

— 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.

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."