Yesterday, legislation was introduced in the House that seeks to reform the way that juvenile offenders are treated under the state’s criminal justice system.
House Bill 280, The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (colloquially known as the “Raise the Age Bill”) raises the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 years for children who are convicted of certain low-level, non-violent misdemeanors. North Carolina is one of only two states left in the nation that still charges and prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults — the other is New York — and our law has not changed in this area for nearly a century.
The legislation does not, however, take away a prosecutor’s ability to try teenagers as adults in charged with the gravest crimes, such as assault, rape, and murder. Nor would the changes apply to juveniles who are gang members charged with gang-related crimes.
The legislation comes at the recommendation of a special commission established by North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin and enjoys widespread and diverse support from officials and advocacy groups from all parts of the political spectrum, including United States Senator Thom Tillis, state Attorney General Josh Stein, NC Child, the American Conservative Union Foundation for Justice’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the North Carolina Family Policy Council, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the Council for Children’s Rights, and the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, to name just a few.
Republicans and Democrats gathered Wednesday for a joint press conference to announce the introduction of House Bill 280. “One reason I came to this bill is that — aside from it being the right thing to do — it’s fiscally the right thing to do,” commented Representative Chuck McGrady, the bill’s chief architect. “Over a long period of time, this bill will save us money.” Representative McGrady added that “the House has passed this bill before,” referring to House Bill 725, legislation that Representative Bell supported and which passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support in the 2013-2014 Session, but which was stalled because of Senate inaction.
Representative Duane Hall, another of the bill’s primary co-sponsors, pointed out during testimony last year to the N.C. Courts Commission that “…all the studies and all other states have shown that juvenile systems save states literally tens of millions of dollars.” His remarks were given high marks by PolitiFact North Carolina.
A 2012 John Locke Foundation report showed that treating young offenders as adults does not, in fact, actually deter juvenile crime and usually results in poor rehabilitation. One study found an 85 percent increase in re-arrest rates amongst juveniles tried in the adult court system over those retained in the juvenile justice system.
“Adolescence is a time when many youth make minor mistakes that can result in police involvement. In North Carolina today, this results in thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds being charged as adults rather than the juveniles they are every year,” said Michelle Hughes, Executive Director of NC Child and a member of the Raise the Age NC Coalition. “Unlike teens who end up in the adult system, the juvenile system requires frequent contact with court counselors, assessments, rehabilitative services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, counseling and education. It also involves families in keeping young people on the right path. When we stop charging teens as adults we can ensure they receive the services they need to learn from their mistakes, and develop new skills that will help them grow up successfully.”
Studies show that incarcerated 16 and 17-year olds are also at heightened risk for both sexual assault and suicide, and advocacy groups supporting reform say that the legislation could also help to reduce the rate of recidivism by as much as ten percent.
“Young people who land in the adult criminal justice system are disproportionately at risk while in custody, more likely to return to criminal behavior than those placed in the juvenile system, and denied jobs and educational opportunities that could help them turn their lives around and contribute to society” said Sarah Preston, Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina.
Preston echoed a troubling 2009 report from the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission which found that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.” The United States Congress had earlier determined that juveniles were five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult (rather than juvenile) facilities, and often within the first 48 hours of incarceration.
Another problem encountered by treating juvenile offenders as adults is the unequal access they face to continuing education. Minors in the adult criminal justice systems have fewer opportunities to access education and other age-specific programming than those in the juvenile justice system. The same John Locke Foundation report showed that while some North Carolina adult facilities offered services to inmates so they could obtain a GED, there were no available programs to allow incarcerated youth to work to earn their high school diplomas.
Policy groups claim that the state would benefit financially from the change in the law as well. A 2011 study estimated that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for those charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies would generate $52.3 million in net benefits for North Carolina.
“On the surface, raising the maximum age of jurisdiction for North Carolina’s juvenile justice system can appear to lead to higher costs,” said report co-author Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime, a national organization devoted to criminal justice policy research and analysis. “However, evidence suggests that any short-term cost advantages of keeping 16- and 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system are ultimately overwhelmed by higher long-term costs.”
Cost-benefit analyses conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice also found that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction would lead to an annual cost of $70.9 million to taxpayers but would generate $123.1 million in recurring benefits for youth, victims and taxpayers.
Jessica Smith, the W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor at the UNC School of Government, has a detailed analysis of the issues surrounding the “Raise the Age” proposal in a December 2016 report for the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice.
In the report, Smith says, “North Carolina stands alone in its treatment of 16- and 17-year-olds (“youthful offenders”) like adults for purposes of the criminal justice system. In 1919, North Carolina determined that juvenile court jurisdiction would extend only to those under 16 years old.
“A substantial body of evidence suggests that both youthful offenders and society benefit when persons under 18 years old are treated in the juvenile justice system rather than the criminal justice system. In response to this evidence, other states have raised the juvenile age.
“Notwithstanding recommendations from two legislatively-mandated studies of the issue, positive experiences in other states that have raised the age, and two cost-benefit studies showing that raising the age would benefit the state economically, North Carolina has yet to take action on this issue.”
North Carolina’s lack of action on this issue may change this year. House Bill 280 boasts 33 co-sponsors and four primary sponsors from both parties. As WRAL reports, general support for “Raise the Age” legislation is growing: “The main question is: why now?” said Rep. Duane Hall, a Wake County Democrat and a primary sponsor of the bill. “We’ve got everybody on board – I mean from the chief justice, chamber of commerce, bankers association, sheriffs, police – it seems like the world’s behind it. We do surveys and polls and it’s over 90 percent of the public in both rural and urban areas.”