The N.C. Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice’s Committee on Criminal Investigation and Adjudication is recommending that North Carolina raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include all youth under the age of 18 for all crimes. Juveniles aged 16 and 17 charged with the most serious felonies may be transferred to the adult system after a finding of probable cause or indictment. Other recommendations include reducing school-based recommendations to the juvenile justice system and regular training for law enforcement in handling juveniles. This proposal also recommends more information be provided for law enforcement officers who may interact with juveniles and that information on juvenile records should be more accessible to prosecutors.
Since 1919, North Carolina has been the only state to treat youth ages 16 and 17 years old as adults in the justice system without exception. However, substantial evidence supports that keeping individuals under the age of 18 in the juvenile justice system rather than the criminal justice system would have a significant beneficial impact on everyone involved, including benefitting the justice system economically.
Statistical data indicates that 96.7 percent of convictions for youth are usually for nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors, with misdemeanors making up 80.4 percent of these crimes. Scientific studies suggest that because of the maturity level of the brain, for teens the ability to reason and control impulsive behaviors is very limited. Reports from the John Locke Foundation also support that youth convicted in the criminal court system are actually more likely to be repeat offenders due to light sentencing for petty crimes, less support, and immaturity of the brain to consider the consequences of their actions. Several United States Supreme Court cases have also held that the treatment of juveniles as adults in certain circumstances violates their Eighth Amendment right.
Research also shows a lower rate of recidivism for youth kept in the juvenile justice system rather than the criminal justice system, because those placed in the juvenile justice system are more likely to rehabilitate and are less likely to commit crimes as adults, resulting in less crime and safer communities. By reducing recidivism rates the government’s costs of maintaining youth who would become part of the adult system would also be reduced, and the increased lifetime earnings of youth kept out of the adult system, given the chance for better education and better employment, would also benefit the economy.
Adults from North Carolina who possess a criminal record due to an incident that occurred in their youth are placed at a competitive disadvantage with those who may have been adjudicated delinquent in other states when it comes to job opportunities. When youth go to trial in criminal court, whether they are found guilty or not, all information becomes available on the public record, which may negatively affect youth for the rest of their lives in many areas, including obtaining employment, education, and public housing. In contrast, youthful offenders adjudicated as juveniles have a greater chance to be rehabilitated through other alternatives and their record remains confidential. Even though expunction is an option, it rarely happens, the legal fees may be problematic for some, and it does nothing to erase information about arrests and convictions presented in the media.
The juvenile justice system also allows more parental and community involvement to assist in the rehabilitation process, which includes mental health, education, and social services participation to encourage a greater social contribution, future societal contributions, and less chance of recidivism. While some fear that raising the age will allow gang-affiliated youth more time to recruit for illegal activities, statistics show that roughly 8 percent of juveniles are associated with gang-related activity. Those youth with gang connections are also more likely to perform better if they remain in the juvenile justice system because they are exposed to gang awareness and substance abuse programs, but those placed in the adult system do not have access to the same programming.
Because of high rates of juveniles being referred to the court system by schools for minor behavioral issues, new methods to remedy this problem have also been developed. School-justice partnership programs have proved to be an effective method for reduction of juveniles entering into the criminal justice system and increased graduation rates. Wilmington is one of the first cities in N.C. to adopt proposals for mediation and school conflict training programs that have gained approval since their introduction in other states.
It has been argued that raising the age could negatively affect public safety, overcrowd detention facilities, increase caseloads in the juvenile justice system, and result in unmanageable fiscal costs. However, as demonstrated by states such as Illinois and Connecticut, raising the age of jurisdiction proved far more beneficial as opposed to the practice of lowering the age, which Rhode Island attempted in 2007, only to rescind the law shortly after due to poor results. Illinois and Connecticut both reported that the juvenile justice system maintained caseloads at a lower rate than expected, spending on the state budget was reduced, public safety did not suffer, and the need for juvenile detention and incarceration facilities actually declined as a result of raising the age.
In North Carolina, due to already declining numbers in the delinquency rate, the reduction in pretrial detentions and commitments to youth development centers, and closures of detention facilities, the Division of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice has already saved more than $44 million from the 2008-2009 fiscal year to the present. The money that the state has already saved as a result of these factors can contribute greatly to the estimated cost for the state to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction.
Two fairly recent studies on raise the age legislation commissioned by the N.C. General Assembly (performed by the Legislative Research Commission and the Youth Accountability Task Force) affirm that N.C. should join the majority of states and raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction. The proposal to raise the age has already received tremendous support from juvenile justice stakeholders, members of law enforcement, the public, and bipartisan lawmakers. In fact, in the public hearings held and comments received in August of this year, 96 percent of the comments supported raising the age. Groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, and the North Carolina Division of the Police Benevolent Association have also issued statements in support of this proposal.
Given the high level of support both statewide and nationwide, the statistical data and scientific studies presented, and in consideration of the future of our youth, it stands to reason that raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction is a critical step forward for North Carolina.
For more information please find the original report here.