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New juvenile justice building provides better access to rehabilitation services

Updated: Feb. 22, 2021 at 5:46 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Work has finished on a new juvenile justice system building in downtown Wilmington.

It will be up and running a little more than a year since the state’s Raise the Age law took effect. Those dealing with the juvenile justice system say New Hanover County is headed down the right path.

A new building to house a brighter future: that’s what New Hanover County officials had in mind when designing the new Division of Juvenile Justice building.

“It’s light, it’s inviting and I hope they’ll find their experience here one that will change their life and will transform them as much as this building has transformed our work space,” said Chief District Court Judge J. Corpening.

The building is meant to make people feel welcome despite the difficult times that children and their families may be going through. It’s part of a new approach to rehabilitate children for a successful future.

“We’ve got the ability in our juvenile justice system to actually provide mental health screenings, mental health treatment, services for the family to try to resolve problems that led to the behavior,” said Corpening. “In criminal court — adult court — you really don’t have that capability.”

The building will be in full operation by the end of March, nearly two years after the Raise the Age bill was signed into law.

“There are approximately 35,000 16- and 17-year-olds that are in our criminal justice system on an annual basis who are now going to be treated like children instead of adults,” said District Attorney Ben David. “What that really means is that they don’t have that sting of collateral consequence of having that scarlet letter ‘F’ for felony or ‘M’ for misdemeanor forever on their chest.”

Since the law took effect, officials have seen a jump in juvenile cases but it isn’t what they expected.

“Less overall numbers than we expected,” said Corpening. “We’ve still seen an uptick in more serious crimes committed by juveniles, but now we’ve got space to grow and accommodate that.”

Corpening says that the increase in more serious offenses may be due to kids being out of school and bored during the pandemic. Overall, he says most juvenile offenses are minor and shouldn’t impact the rest of the offender’s life.

With this new center in Wilmington, the sense of hope is much greater to truly change lives instead of condemning them. However, David says he and other officials still plan to treat teenagers like adults in extreme cases such as murder, rape and armed robbery.

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