LUMBERTON — After helping hundreds of teens stay out of the Robeson County court system, a research project started by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is wrapping up its services. But, with the help of an $80,000 grant and newly earned nonprofit status, Robeson County Teen Court and Youth Services will remain in session.
UNC’s North Carolina Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention, known as NC-ACE, teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and other partners in 2010 to curb violence in Robeson County, which has some of the highest violent crime rates in the state.
“I was very concerned about the program ending and the impact it would have on this community,” said Jim Barbee, center coordinator for NC-ACE and interim executive director for the complimentary nonprofit. “… I couldn’t sleep at night knowing we didn’t make every effort we could.”
The center will finish its five-year research project in the county in September of 2015, but the programs assosciated with it will end on Sept. 30 of this year. On July 1, Robeson County Teen Court and Youth Services was awarded nonprofit status to continue the mission established by the center and will take over those programs once NC-ACE meets its yearly goal of serving 120 teens in its court, just 16 beyond its current year-to-date total.
NC-ACE is one of three similar centers in the country established by the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School.
“The CDC has now identified youth violence as an epidemic,” Barbee said.
When the program began, Robeson County ranked first in the state in terms of its juvenile arrest rate. In 2010, 1,211 juveniles were arrested, including eight for murder, 299 for assault, 172 for larceny, 281 for disorderly conduct and 50 for weapons violations, according to the Uniform Crime Report. North Carolina is one of two states in the country, the other being New York, that prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds charged with misdeameanors as adults.
Crime is one tenet of a vicious circle in Robeson County, Barbee says, along with drug abuse and poverty. About 32 percent of Robesonians are living below the poverty line — about double the state’s rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Through teen court, first-time offenders ages 11 to 17 can plead guilty to their misdeameanor charges in teen court, allowing their cases to be pulled out of the Juvenile and District Court systems and their charges to be dismissed.
Barbee said the most common offense is affray, where one individual involved in the fight was being bullied and struck back. Many defendants are referred directly by school officials.
“We want to work with kids who truly are repentant and sorry,” Barbee said.
An adult judge, typically Chief District Court Judge J. Stanley Carmical, and a jury of teenage volunteers and former defendants hear the arguments of attorney advocates, also teenaged volunteers, before deciding what sanctions a defendant must face.
Sanctions — which may range from jury duty to community service to reparations — are fulfilled during a four to six month stay in the program. Upon completion, formal criminal charges, which could prevent a teen from getting a job or enrolling in the military, are dismissed.
“If we can avoid the conviction, I really feel like we’re making a huge difference,” Barbee said.
If a defendant does not complete his or her sanctions, the charges are not dropped and the case heads back to District or Juvenile Court.
Teen Court is just one facet of the youth services program. Defendants may also take part in Students Against Violence Everywhere, where they learn crime prevention and conflict mediation skills, or join their families in Parenting Wisely, a web-based program designed to bolster parent-teen relationships. NC-ACE also offered Positive Action, a middle school program that teaches life-skills to about 4,700 students, but Barbee said the resources to continue the program are not available to the nonprofit.
An $80,250 grant from the Governer’s Crime Commission will help fund the program, which operates out of the Robeson County Board of Elections building on Walnut Street. In accordance with the grant, the program has agreed to divert up to 80 first-time offenders from traditional courts, counsel 40 parents through Parenting Wisely and provide life skills training to 50 successful defendants.
Robeson County’s Board of Commissioners has agreed to help the program meet the local 25 percent match the nonprofit is required to secure by Sept. 1, and Barbee said he’s waiting to hear from Lumberton’s City Council on funding.
Money to pay out restitution and keep the office running mainly comes from donations. Because grant money cannot be put towards food, staffers often pay out of pocket to feed teens involved with the program.
“There are a lot of passionate people here who want to do the right thing,” Barbee said. “We are here, we are trying to keep this program alive and we do need community support …”
A former police officer, Barbee helped write the initial minimum standards for teen courts and spent five years working with the state Department of Public Safety’s juvenile division. For him, teen court exists to support the community.
“I live in Wake Forest. I drive two hours every day to do this,” Barbee said. “I have no vested interest, no kids here, I just believe in this community … It is more than just a job for me.”