'Raise the Age' bill gains support

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 19, 2011

More teenagers would go through juvenile court
By Elizabeth Cook
People who think of 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles are at odds with North Carolina criminal law.
Since 1919, North Carolina has considered anyone 16 and above an adult as far as the criminal justice system goes. If a 16-year-old is charged with a crime, it’s a matter of public record. His or her case will go through adult court. The young person’s record becomes permanent and public. And the result could be a stint in an adult prison.
North Carolina is one of only two states where 16 is considered the age of juvenile jurisdiction. New York is the other. Other states set 17 or 18 as the age — most at 18.
A “Raise the Age” movement to change North Carolina’s law has gained some traction this year. Proposed legislation would still send young people charged with serious felonies through the adult system, but the bill calls for phasing in changes that would result in all 16- and 17-year-olds accused of minor crimes going through the juvenile justice system, which has a greater emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation. That, proponents argue, increases chances of getting young lives back on track and avoiding a life of crime.
Last week lawmakers agreed to consider the bill in the 2012 short session of the General Assembly, an unusual move. The bill had stalled in committee with no hopes of passage this year. Normally that means no passage for two years, because the General Assembly primarily considers only budget issues during its every-other-year short session. But a bipartisan coalition including former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr successfully urged legislators last week to keep the bill in play so it could be taken up in next year’s short session.
The legislation in question came from the bipartisan Youth Accountability Planning Task Force, on which Rowan Chief District Court Judge Charlie Brown serves, the only judge among the appointees.
Michelle Hall, coordinator of the Youth Accountability Planning Task Force, participated in a Q&A with the Post last week after speaking to the Salisbury Rotary Club about Raising the Age.
Hall is a research and policy associate at the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission, and she formerly worked as a legislative assistant to state Rep. Alice Bordsen of Alamance County.
Hall’s work on the issue began while in Bordsen’s office. Charges following a big drug bust at an Alamance high school gave the community a rude awakening to North Carolina’s low age of juvenile jurisdiction. The 16-year-olds charged were publicly named, went through the adult system and now have permanent criminal records, while 15-year-olds’ names were kept confidential, they went through the juvenile system and have no adult criminal record.
Here is an edited transcript of the interview with Hall.
Q: Why does North Carolina treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when it comes to criminal justice?
A: The decision was made when the first juvenile court statute was written in 1919 to set the age at 16. Although it’s been revisited a number of times over the past almost hundred years, there’s been historical resistance based on the expense of having 16- and 17-year-olds move into the juvenile justice system, among other concerns about public safety.
Q: What is different about going through the adult system and going through the juvenile system?
A: The juvenile system is treatment-oriented. The focus is to rehabilitate the youth, to try and get them on a different path away from criminal activity. That’s not to say the adult system doesn’t attempt to do the same thing, but the juvenile system is more intensive.
Q: That’s what makes it expensive?
A: Yes. The treatment, the education requirement, wrap-around services — are what drives the expense.
Q: How are 16- and 17-year-olds affected by being in the adult system? Has research been done on the impact on them?
A: Yes, a lot of research has shown that detention for youth under 18 is detrimental. Incarceration is the same. The youth that come out of the adult system are more likely to recidivate, not less likely. The Centers for Disease Control has looked into the negative impact of incarceration on youth, specifically, and has recommended against placing youth in the adult criminal system for that reason.
Q: How many people are we talking about? How many 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are in the system now or in a typical year?
A: The population that would move into the juvenile system would be 30,000.
Q: So what is the major thrust of the Youth Accountability Task Force’s recommendations?
A: The recommendation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction was made in 2007 in the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission’s report. So the task force didn’t take on the question of whether the age should be raised. The task force’s focus was creating an implementation plan for the state, should the legislature pass legislation to raise the age. One of the major legal changes recommended by the task force was the automatic transfer of 16- and 17-year-olds who commit A-E felonies to the adult system.
Q: Those are the more serious crimes?
A: Those are the more serious crimes. Currently, there is already an automatic transfer for all juveniles 13 and older charged with first-degree murder, which is a Class A felony. The recommendation would really apply to those who commit B1 through E felonies. The task force also recommended the existing transfer laws remain in place; the district attorney and judge still have discretion to move anyone 13 and up (to the adult system).
Q: Right now they don’t have discretion to move anyone down to the juvenile system?
A: Correct. Unlike New York, which has “reverse transfer,” even if the DA and the judge felt, in the case of a 16-year-old or 17-year-old, the juvenile system was the more appropriate place for that youth, they cannot move him or her into that system. There’s nothing in the (current) statute that would allow them to move a 16- or 17-year-old into the juvenile system.
Q: Does “Raising the Age” mean the state is going soft when it comes to juveniles who commit crime?
A: Most in the system would likely say that the juvenile justice system asks more of the youth that are going through it. They have to complete therapies, they have to continue with their education and meet requirements through community programs. They’re also supervised; they meet with a court counselor. Raising the age would mean more youth are getting consequences tied to their behavior, along with treatment. Public safety should increase with more youth going through the juvenile justice system getting the help that they need.
Q: And the dangerous ones accused of violent crimes are going on to the adult court system.
A: Yes, the violent ones will be going on to adult court.
Q: Would this swamp the juvenile justice system that heretofore has not had to deal with 16- and 17-year-olds?
A: We deal with some 16- and 17-year-olds now in the communities, but obviously not as many as would be coming into the system . … The legislation takes the large influx of youth into account by delaying implementation to allow for planning, and then stretching the phase-in over a period of four years.
Q: How much money will it cost?
A: The cost-benefit analysis that the task force contracted for with the VERA Institute of Justice projects that annually, it would cost the whole system — courts, the juvenile justice system, law enforcement — $70.9 million. That does not include capital costs.
Q: Is juvenile crime on the rise?
A: It’s actually not. All crime is trending downward, including juvenile crime.
Q: What kind of crimes are juveniles convicted of committing? Are many of them violent?
A: No. The vast majority are misdemeanors and low-level, nonviolent felonies. According to a Juvenile Recidivism Study, less than 2 percent of the crimes committed by juveniles are violent.
Q: Does recent research on brain development have any bearing on the push to raise the age?
A: The brain development piece has come in, not just into this issue, but into other issues related to juvenile crime. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida both cite that youth under the age of 18 lack the same decision-making capability and are therefore less culpable than adults committing the same crime. Research has shown the parts of the brain that guide decision-making, specifically related to understanding long-term consequences of behavior, continue to develop in youth into their 20s.
More information:
Youth Accountability Task Force
Action for Children
Campaign for Youth Justice
http://www.campaignfor youthjustice.org/