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"Never seen anything like this": Chief District Judge says juvenile gun violence has reached an alarming level

New Hanover County Division of Juvenile Justice
Camille Mojica
/
WHQR

The community violence problem in New Hanover County is being driven in part by a worrying trend: guns in the hands of young juveniles. In an interview with WHQR, Judge J. H. Corpening explains how the pandemic has had an effect on these kids.

“Community violence” is a term that’s been thrown around a lot over the past year, in particular since the shooting at New Hanover High last August. Now, the conversation is shifting to juveniles, and the role they play in the problem.

Related — The Newsroom: District Attorney Ben David and Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening on juvenile justice

District Court Judge for New Hanover and Pender Counties J. H. Corpening presides over all things juvenile in the system. He said the problem of guns in the hands of young kids emerged around a year or two ago. The cause was unclear at first, but now Corpening said he has a better understanding of the issue.

The school system is a huge protective factor in the lives of kids, he said, and when lockdown took that away, kids turned to the streets. And it’s the worst he’s seen in his long career on the bench.

“To 2020 is nothing like I've ever seen in my life. And I've worked in juvenile court for 42 years. I've never seen anything like this… it's it's it's been, it's been, it's been horrific," Corpening said.

While 2020 was bad, Corpening said about a year into the pandemic he started seeing something different — younger kids coming in front of his bench for gun-related crimes. The numbers for 2021 aren’t in yet, but Corpening called what he saw in his court ‘alarming.’

Community violence is underpinned by a lot of risk factors. Families may be broken or there may be food or housing insecurity. These things affect the mental health of children, and without the proper avenues to explore those feelings, they result in lashing out. These risk factors make up the bomb, Corpening said, and the pandemic was the trigger.

Something people fail to realize is that these are just kids, Corpening said. Their brains aren’t fully developed and their ability to weigh consequences of decisions simply isn’t there when they’re angry, or afraid. Corpening said when kids are scared, they sometimes turn to guns for protection — a story he’s been hearing more often over the last year.

Over the last two years, more kids have been ending up in a disturbingly familiar situation: they pick up a gun and shoot without thinking about the consequences of taking a life — and end up sacrificing their own to the justice system.

“And give you an example, a number of years ago, … three teenagers, two of them trying to kill the third. And, and I was talking to the 15 year old who was wanting to go home. And the day before he had just been trying to kill a person and [now] he's all tough guy. You know ... really trying to show me you know what a tough guy he was. But when he found out he wasn't going home, he cried for his mom. The shooting wasn't real. Mom's real," Corpening said.

Mothers come to Corpening just as afraid as their kids. They don’t feel their children are safe on the streets, and some go as far as to ask that he keep their children locked up, to save their lives.

“I talked to moms, on a regular basis, who are terrified for their kids, especially their young black and brown boys," Corpening said. "And they're terrified. For any moms who listened to this — can you imagine asking a judge to keep your kid confined, locked up to save their life?”

The county has been working hard to combat the issue, Corpening said, with programs and funding. But those programs can only do so much without a trusted adult figure in these kids’ lives. The community needs to ensure that each child has someone to turn to, Corpening said, and that’s why programs like Elements, Too Good For Violence and strong community leaders are so important.