The time is now. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, advocates and officials gathered Wednesday morning to introduce a bill that would raise the juvenile age of prosecution in the adult criminal system.
North Carolina currently is one of only two states that prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
“North Carolina must not be last,” said Judge Marion Warren, Director of the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.
He joined several lawmakers from both political parties and both the House and Senate in announcing House Bill 280, the Justice Juvenile Reinvestment Act.
Warren said the most difficult part of the jobs he’s had over the years as a lawyer, an advocate, a judge and a prosecutor, has been witnessing the damaging effects of prosecuting teens as adults.
“You have someone that commits an offense that you see is from the sheer folly of youth and lack of maturity, and that offense carries with them the rest of their lives,” he said. “We put an Albatross or a millstone around the youth of our state when we give them an adult conviction.”
Among other things, HB 280 would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds, except in the case of certain violent felonies. The primary bill sponsors are Representatives Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), David Lewis (R-Harnett), Duane Hall (D-Wake) and Susan Martin (R-Pitt, Wilson).
McGrady said that when the General Assembly passed the Justice Reinvestment Act in 2011 to reform the adult criminal justice system, it reaped major benefits.
He said the policies led to the lowest prison population in a decade and saved the state nearly $165 million from 2012 to 2015, adding that he believes HB 280 will bring similar benefits.
“Aside from it being the right thing to do, it’s fiscally the right thing to do,” he said. “Over a long period of time, this bill will save us some money; short term, we’re going to have to make some investments in the juvenile justice system.”
He said staff was still working on a fiscal note for the bill but estimated it would require several hundred million dollars in a three to five year span.
“Overall though, it’s a quick payback,” McGrady said.
William Lassiter, deputy commissioner of Juvenile Justice in the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice, explained some cost-benefit analyses that showed a range of benefits for the state from $7 to $50 million per year.
The lower number, he said, was an actual dollars benefit, whereas the larger number included actual dollars and benefits to juveniles. Just by keeping teens in the juvenile criminal system, as opposed to the adult system, is shown to reduce recidivism by 8 percent, Lassiter said.
Over time, that means there are less kids growing up and going to prison and less adults who have to be on probation or require supervision — the number one cost-saving benefit, he said.
Hall also spoke about his support for the bill, and said that in recent years, only 3.3 percent of juveniles were shown to have committed violent crimes. Prosecuting juveniles as adults, he said, means that small offenses have “enormous long-term consequences.”
Hall said he was an attorney who represented juveniles before working at the legislature. He said he’s had dozens of kids in tears because they couldn’t go into the military in the same role as family members or receive financial aid or work on campus to pay for school because of their records.
In an effort to answer the question about why this year is different for others in terms of actually passing a bill to raise the age, Hall said there’s more support.
“It seems like absolutely everyone is on board,” he said. “The public is overwhelmingly in support of this.”
The work of N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice’s Mark Martin’s Courts Commission, which studied raising the age and recommended it to legislators, helped to gain the support of law enforcement, which in the past has been opposed to such legislation.
The N.C. Sheriff’s Association, Police Benevolent Association and Association of Chiefs of Police are all on board with HB 280.
There are also a ton of advocacy organizations who have worked for decades to get legislation to raise the age passed. NC Child put out a statement after Wednesday’s press conference.
“Adolescence is a time when many youth make minor mistakes that can result in police involvement. In North Carolina today, this results in thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds being charged as adults rather than the juveniles they are every year,” said Michelle Hughes, Executive Director at NC Child and a member of the Raise the Age NC Coalition. “Unlike teens who end up in the adult system, the juvenile system requires frequent contact with court counselors, assessments, rehabilitative services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, counseling and education. It also involves families in keeping young people on the right path. When we stop charging teens as adults we can ensure they receive the services they need to learn from their mistakes, and develop new skills that will help them grow up successfully.”
The release also points out that the N.C. House approved a bill in 2014 that would have redirected 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to the juvenile justice system.
“House Bill 280, grounded in research and diverse stakeholder input, goes beyond previously passed legislation to include all misdemeanors as well as low-level felonies,” the release states. “The evidence is clear that outcomes are better for young people and society at large when teens are adjudicated in the juvenile justice system.”