Guilford County commissioner makes push to keep 16, 17 year olds out of jail, mixing with career criminals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- When 16 and 17 year olds go to jail on adult charges in Guilford County there is a lot of idle time and opportunity to get into trouble.

“A lot of times the younger guys have a little more energy and they may be a little more rambunctious so we have to do some things to make we keep those guys engaged,” said Captain Kenneth Watkins, of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office.

That’s just one reason Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp would like to see laws changed in North Carolina requiring all 16- and 17-year-old offenders sent to juvenile detention facilities instead of jail where there’s a chance they can be housed with adults.

“North Carolina and New York are the only two states that still house 16- and 17-year-olds with lifelong criminals,” said Trapp. “I know the other 48 states think we're crazy and what's the justification for it? To me there is no justification for it.”

Trapp said he will lobby state lawmakers to change the law but in the meantime the Guilford County Jail will continue with its own program to reduce the recidivism rate among teenagers.

“We do have programs that we try to keep the guys engaged,” said Watkins. “We have some reading classes, Reading Connection.”

There are also GED prep classes for young offenders. If a teenager is identified as a good student school teachers can bring class work in for inmates to complete.

Watkins said it doesn’t help every young offender but has turned around some.

“You see these guys around town and they'll say, ‘Hey, I appreciate it. You guys got me in the program. You got me working and stuff.’ So there are some positive things that come out of being in jail, if you choose to do the work,” said Watkins.

Watkins said they would like to keep all teenagers together but their pods house about 40 people and the jail generally only has around 20 16- and 17-year-olds in jail at a time. According to Watkins, putting them together and separate from adults would not be the wisest use of stretched resources.

A recent study on youth offender rates and the impact of incarceration was performed recently in Illinois. It did not look at North Carolina or New York specifically. The study found youth offenders who serve time in juvenile detention centers are 25% more likely to drop out from school and 35% more likely to return to a life of crime once released.

Below are some other links to studies on the subject.

http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-NoPlaceForKidsFullReport-2011.pdf

http://www.voxeu.org/article/what-long-term-impact-incarcerating-juveniles