What Happens Next With Raise the Age In North Carolina?

By Marcus Thompson

On Thursday, Jan. 11, the N.C. Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee (JJAC) met for its second meeting since the passage of the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. During the meeting, several presenters addressed the committee with research data and considerations for the juvenile justice system prior to and after the changes to the law are implemented.

N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts Director Marion Warren and Brad Fowler, manager of the AOC Research, Policy, and Planning Division, shared AOC’s analysis of the possible workload increase and need for more staff. Fowler emphasized the need to assess the resources going into the cases we have now to prepare the juvenile justice system for the arrival of more cases.

“The system to handle 16- and 17-year-olds will not drop out of the sky the day the law changes,” he said. “Having [the pieces] in place before that time is the goal.”

William L. Lassiter, deputy secretary of juvenile justice for the Department of Public Safety, went on to discuss considerations for fiscal year 2018-2019. Lassiter pointed out the need for subcommittees within JJAC, the success of raising the age in other states, and the need for more staff, improved facilities and community programs to assist youth. Lassiter said that when Raise the Age was implemented in other states, complaints and recidivism rates dropped significantly, especially for kids younger than 12, because more diversion programs were explored as more kids were brought into the juvenile justice system. While discussing community programs, he praised the success of North Carolina’s own Teen Court program.

“Teen Court is much more consequential and has a higher level of accountability than regular court. Kids don’t want their friends to get away with something they didn’t get away with,” he said jokingly, pointing out how juveniles had to admit their guilt for a crime in Teen Court and a jury of their peers would ensure that juveniles would receive a suitable punishment in the form of community service, in addition to a term on the Teen Court jury.

Lassiter stated that participants in the Teen Court program only had a 12 percent recidivism rate and he desired for every district to have their own program. He gave JJAC a breakdown of potential costs for community programs, new transportation for juveniles, and hiring of additional staff over the next few years, up to FY 2020-2021, which included about 292 new positions.

Juvenile Defender Eric Zogry, a member of the Juvenile Justice and Children’s Rights Council, offered a brief presentation on the history and structure of North Carolina’s juvenile indigent defense system and the Office of the Juvenile Defender’s plan in preparation for the implementation of the law. Zogry emphasized the need for a dedicated juvenile defender system in our state while pointing out that the majority of N.C. counties lacked a designated juvenile defender. Mary Stansell, Juvenile Chief of the Wake County Public Defender’s Office and member of JJAC, as well as a member of the Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force, backed Zogry’s point, citing examples from her own personal experience of working with lawyers who were not familiar with or just not committed to the specialized practice of juvenile defense.

The last presentation by Chief District Court Judge J. H. Corpening II of District 5 discussed several phases to develop the school-justice partnership program. Corpening talked about establishing relationships with other judges at leadership training, the progression of the program so far for specific counties, and the need for a comprehensive toolkit, website, and other resources to assist counties in implementing their own school-justice partnership programs.

Finally, the Committee returned to Lassiter’s suggestion to establish subcommittees to assist in the planning and execution of the new initiatives they would have to address in the coming months. Several members of JJAC and others in attendance were selected to serve on the subcommittees, including current Juvenile Justice and Children’s Right’s Chair LaToya Powell, as well as Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force members Ricky Watson, Tarrah Callahan, also a JJAC member, and Susanna Birdsong.