In most states, a juvenile is not usually prosecuted in adult court until the age of 18 or older. Five states prosecute 17-year-olds and above as adults. Currently, only two states, New York and North Carolina, prosecute 16-year-olds as adults in criminal court; but that may change pretty soon. There are now two versions of the Juvenile Reinvestment Act before the General Assembly that would remove North Carolina from this exclusive list, HB 280 and SB 146.
If the bills are enacted, 16 and 17-year-olds would no longer be automatically prosecuted in district or superior court. Rather, they would be processed through the same juvenile justice system that their younger peers are. Notably, there would be some exceptions; 16 and 17-year-olds accused of violent or serious felonies including murder, rape, sex crimes, drug crimes, and arson would still be prosecuted In adult criminal court. Additionally, the juvenile court would have the ability to transfer a 16 or 17-year-old’s case to adult district or superior court when appropriate.
The Juvenile Reinvestment Act would also increase access to juvenile records for prosecutors and law enforcement so that a juvenile’s prior record can be taken into consideration when deciding what to charge. Further, a victim of an alleged crime could request to review a decision not to pursue charges against a juvenile in a particular case. Importantly, the legislation also calls for more regular law enforcement training on the subject of juvenile justice. Training topics would include: best practices for dealing with juvenile arrests, incidents, and detention, adolescent development and psychology, and relationship building to reduce delinquency. Finally, if enacted, a Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee would be created. This 27-member committee would develop a plan to implement the changes made to the juvenile justice system and deal with the costs associated with the expansion. In the long-term, the Committee would monitor the ongoing changes and make reports on the costs involved.
North Carolina’s State Juvenile Defender, believes cost will be the greatest challenge in getting the Act passed into law.
The very name of the legislation—the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act—implies expense, and Eric Zogry, North Carolina’s State Juvenile Defender, believes cost will be the greatest challenge in getting the Act passed into law. Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson)—a sponsor of HB 280—acknowledged that the changes to be made under the legislation would require some investment in the justice system. Where he does not yet have a fiscal note for HB 280, Rep. McGrady estimates that the changes would cost several million dollars in a three to five year term. Already, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has put his support behind the bills and incorporated preliminary investments into his most recent budget proposal. Others have expressed concerns that the influx of 16 and 17-year-olds into the juvenile system will strain the court systems and cause problems for law enforcement agencies already struggling to house the juvenile inmate population separate from the adult population.
This Act is framed as an investment—fiscal returns are to be expected. Supporters have little doubt that the benefits will outweigh the costs associated with the legislation. Rep. McGrady compared this legislation to the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2011 which saved the state nearly $165 million in just four years. The Act also led to the lowest prison population in a decade. Rep. McGrady told reporters—referring to HB 280— “Aside from being the right thing to do, it’s fiscally the right thing to do” and “Overall though, it’s a quick payback.” According to some cost-benefit analyses, the state can expect a benefit of seven to 50 million dollars per year if the changes are enacted. The lower estimate is the actual dollar return the state can expect while the larger estimate includes actual dollar benefits plus the monetized benefits to juveniles. The cost savings can be attributed to expected lower rates of recidivism, decreased rates of incarceration and probation, decrease in court traffic, and the increased economic contribution of those affected positively by the juvenile justice system. However, for many, the economic benefits are not the primary reason for supporting the types of changes laid out in the Juvenile Reinvestment Act. Juveniles would benefit from being able to avoid the stigma and long lasting implications that an adult court criminal conviction can have on them. This is particularly crucial at a point where the juvenile may not fully understand the effects a criminal conviction can have on the remainder of their life.
The collateral implications of a criminal conviction can prevent a juvenile from pursuing an education, having access to financial aid, getting housing, finding employment, and cause a host of other issues that affect the juveniles future economic contributions to society. According to Michelle Hughes—the Executive Director of NC Child, which is an advocacy group supporting the Juvenile Reinvestment Act, when processed through the juvenile justice system, the juvenile has access to resources crucial to the juvenile’s rehabilitation and development that are not available to them in adult criminal court. Such resources include: regular contact with court counselors, various types of health assessments, mental health and substance abuse treatment, counseling and education, and the involvement of families. Finally, sending 16 and 17-year-olds through the juvenile justice system and not through adult criminal court reduces the rates of incarceration which can be a threat to a juvenile’s physical safety.
The Juvenile Reinvestment Act is not the first serious push for juvenile justice reform in North Carolina. For the past several years, similar measures have been proposed each year, with few gaining any real ground. However, this legislation is experiencing more support than ever before. The Act has enjoyed widespread support, not only from within the General Assembly, but from within the executive and judicial branches of government as well. In the General Assembly, the support is bipartisan and includes lawyers and non-lawyers alike. “It seems like absolutely everyone is on board,” Duane Hall (D-Wake) told reporters when asked why this year is different. From within the executive branch, Gov. Roy Cooper (D), Attorney Gen. Josh Stein (D), and some Sheriffs have put their support behind HB 280 and SB 146.
North Carolina must not be last.
Much of the legislation itself arose from a study performed by the North Carolina Commission on Law and Justice, chaired by NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, which recommended many of the changes included in the legislation. Additional support from the judiciary includes Judge Marion Warren, the Director of the NC Administrative Office of the Courts, who stated, “North Carolina must not be last” when referring to raising the age of juvenile delinquency. The North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender has long supported the measures proposed in the Act. Outside of government officials, many advocacy organizations have made their support of the legislation known including NC Child, the Youth Justice Project, and the Council for Children’s Rights.
Even law enforcement advocacy groups, like the NC Sheriff’s Association, the Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Police Benevolent Association, who have historically not supported raise-the-age efforts in North Carolina are now on board. The recent support from the law enforcement community is likely due to provisions in the bills that allow for transfer of juvenile cases to adult court where appropriate, the exception of violent felonies from juvenile court, and the increased access law enforcement and prosecutors would have to a juvenile’s prior record.
As of now, HB 280 has passed its first reading in the House and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, to be passed on to the Appropriations Committee, if the result is favorable. In the Senate, SB 146, has passed its first reading and has been referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate. The House version has all provisions being implemented by December 1, 2019, and the Senate version implements the provisions beginning July 1, 2018.