This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.

Detention centers are badly overcrowded and under-resourced, according to a committee presentation last week.

There are so many vacant positions in North Carolina’s juvenile detention centers that officials are using the money that would pay the salaries of new employees as an incentive to get existing staffers to report to their shifts.

“If you show up to work today, you get a bonus,” said William Lassiter, the deputy secretary of juvenile justice. “The reality is that when you show up and you’re the only one working on a unit, it’s not encouraging to come back the next day.”

The bonus supplements the paltry $35,400 starting salary at the detention centers. In addition to the “show up bonus,” Lassiter said that for the past two months officials have been offering retention bonuses and $3,000 signing bonuses for new hires. It appears to be working.

“Last month was the first time that we actually hired more people than left,” Lassiter told the members of the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee last Friday.

There is a 38 percent vacancy rate for direct care facility staff—the employees who work with troubled young people every day, counseling, supporting and supervising them. Last Friday, Lassiter said, juvenile detention centers were at 102 percent capacity, leaving them badly overcrowded and understaffed.

“That’s not tenable, and it’s not sustainable,” Lassiter said, adding that staff is spread so thin that even he has picked up shifts at the juvenile detention centers.

“At the same time, I have law enforcement across the state that are yelling at me saying you’re not detaining enough kids,” he said

The staffing shortage is happening in tandem with an increase in the number of children held in the detention centers, an expected consequence of North Carolina raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction and putting 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile, rather than adult, justice system, depending on the crime they’re charged with.

Kimberly Quintus, director of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention analysis, research and external affairs told the committee there’s been a 133 percent increase in the number of children in the detention centers since Raise the Age went into effect. There were 132 kids, on average, in the centers in November 2019, before Raise the Age; there were 307 children in the centers, on average, in November 2022, three years into Raise the Age.

That makes it even more important that the state hire employees to work at the juvenile detention centers, Lassiter said—and give them incentives to not quit and find work elsewhere.

Pay is central to retaining and recruiting detention center staff, Lassiter told the committee. He and others encouraged lawmakers last legislative session to institute a “step pay plan,” a salary structure that allows for pay raises based on tenure or job performance. The idea, Lassiter explained, is to telegraph to prospective workers that they are not going to be stuck at the same level of pay for their whole career.

“I have people that are working with me in our facilities that have worked with us for 25, 30 years that are still making $37- or $38,000,” Lassiter said.

Adult corrections and probation officers were put on a step salary plan two years ago, giving them a reason to stick around so they get an increase in pay.

Lassiter said there was money set aside for juvenile justice employees to get a step salary plan, too, but when the Division of Adult Correction was created, all that funding went with it.

“I think this was done unintentionally. That was what I was told by legislative members, because that was done at the last minute,” Lassiter said. “That split of having Adult Correction create a separate department was not in the original budget bill, it was in the last reiteration that was done behind closed doors.

Lassiter said his organization tried to get the language fixed in the last session, but legislators ultimately failed to approve it before the end of the short session.

That inaction led to Lassiter’s big ask of the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee: recommend the state institute a step pay plan for the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He estimated it would cost North Carolina $12.5 million.

“If Raise the Age is ultimately going to work in the state of North Carolina, it takes resources, and the number one resource is people,” Lassiter said. “People are what change kids’ lives.”

Members unanimously approved the motion, leaving the salary increase in the hands of the legislature next session.

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