By Marcus Thompson

Since 2007, seven states have changed their laws to include youth 16 and 17 years of age in the juvenile justice system, cutting the number of youth in the criminal justice system in half nationwide and without any detrimental effects on the wallets of taxpayers.  North Carolina and New York still remain the only two states that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Last week, House Bill 280, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, which raises the age to include juveniles 16 and 17 years of age in the North Carolina juvenile justice system, was introduced to the legislator and announced during a press conference.  Rep. Chuck McGrady stated that “besides being the right thing to do, this bill was also fiscally the right thing to do” because it would save the state money in the long term.

“They did what they did, and parents would come to court and plead their children guilty every day because it was the right thing to do to take responsibility for their actions, and they have no inclination because they have no training and they assume that juvenile jurisdiction ends at 18, but they have no idea that they are putting a permanent mark that is an economic disincentive to the youth of our state,” said Judge Marion Warren, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts and a former district court judge who presided over hundreds of juvenile cases. Judge Warren shared the statistic that 96.7 percent of crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-old offenders were for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. “This process brought the people together to see exactly what it was doing to our state. North Carolina cannot be last …  North Carolina always finds itself as a leader on the position for self-improvement, introspection, and thought. Now is the time to raise the juvenile age. It is time to support House Bill 280.”

Rep. Duane Hall, who noted his support of the issue the past decade, said that the bill had tremendous bipartisan support.  Rep. Hall said that before he was a member of the legislature, he worked as an attorney representing children for small, first-time offenses.  He stated that he had teenagers who came to him in tears because they would not have the opportunity to pursue their desired careers in military or obtain financial aid because of the permanent consequences that followed them for the smallest offenses.

Rep. Kelly Alexander said that he and his colleagues of the Legislative Black Caucus on both the Senate and House sides have had an interest in juvenile justice for a long time and they supported the change 100 percent.

William Lassiter, Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Juvenile Justice, said that the cost savings estimated for N.C. as a result of the bill could be in the range of $7 million to $50 million, depending on the economic contribution of each juvenile that would be effected in the justice system based on their ability to obtain a diploma, college degree, and be taxpaying citizens. He said that just by keeping kids in the juvenile justice system there are lower rates of recidivism, which is the major factor in cost reduction for the state. He mentioned that for nine years in a row now there has been a 30 percent decline in juvenile crime rates. There has been a reduction in 16- and 17-year-olds on probation from about 8,000 to fewer than 2,000 in the past decade under adult supervision because of improvements in the juvenile justice system every day.

When asked what improvements in the bill gained the support of law enforcement, Judge Warren said that he believed that the two most significant changes were the ability to transfer A-E felonies to criminal court, which would be more to the benefit of the community than to the juvenile, and a pre-petition diversion, which allowed other stakeholders to get involved in putting a child on the right path.

According to the latest report from the Justice Policy Institute released on March 7th, despite concerns that the intake of these youth into the juvenile justice system would ultimately overwhelm the states that raised the age and significantly increase the costs to taxpayers, it was proven that by applying better practices these issues could be easily alleviated.  Programs to assist youth in getting past delinquency and reducing recidivism for them in turn reduced the need for confinement and increased public safety.  Fewer prisons are needed as a result of youth being taken out of the criminal justice system and juveniles are also safer when they are not being incarcerated with adults, which would put them at risk of being sexually assaulted.

In the past decade, North Carolina has halved the number of youth admitted to detention centers.  The North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice Committee on Criminal Investigation and Adjudication reported that, because the Division of Juvenile Justice has shifted to more effective youth justice practices, they have already produced millions of dollars in cost savings to help implement raise the age.

Contact OJD for more information about H280 and juvenile jurisdiction.