House lawmakers are poised to raise the juvenile age of prosecution from 16 and 17 years old to 18 years old, but as expected, the money could pose an issue.
A 36-page fiscal note  attached to House Bill 280  estimates the project will cost $143.5 million over the next five years — $25.3 million next year for the construction of a new 96-bed Youth Development Center, no fiscal impact the following year and $44.3 and $44.5 million the following two years.
Legislators aired their concerns Thursday morning at an appropriations committee meeting about where the money would come from. Bill sponsors tried to ease their worries but didn’t have a direct answer about the source of funding.
Rep. Chuck McGrady  (R-Henderson), who is carrying the bill, said there wasn’t another way to move forward — the bill and the policy needed to be in place to work out the financials. He also promised to do the best he could in terms of the budgeting process.
“Adopting a budget is about negotiations and compromise,” he said.
He added that the Senate included a provision (though not funds) in its budget for raising the age, something he’s never seen happen before with a House Bill, though he noted the provision differs from HB280 in terms of how and when raise the age would be implemented.
The bill was ultimately given a favorable report in a voice vote with few “no’s.” It will move now to the House floor for a full vote.
Other concerns included what impact raising the age would have on counties’ budgets — unfunded mandates such as housing additional court staff and spending more time in the juvenile system than what it would take in the adult system.
Rep. Sarah Stevens  (R-Surry, Wilkes)was one of the legislators who pointed those issues out, and noted that she actually works in the system.
McGrady said he fully expects that the legislative body will have to revisit the costs to counties at a later time, but there was no way to know until implemented what those costs will be.
“Let’s assume there’s some cost up front, what about the long range here?,” he asked. “You get the juveniles out of the criminal justice system and your recidivism rates drop. Who’s going to benefit from that in terms of jail space down the road?”
He said money has always been a concern but that 49 other states have done this and there’s going to be some cost savings associated with raising the age.
Ashley Welch, District Attorney for Cherokee, Swain, Clay, Graham, Macon, Haywood and Jackson counties, said the funding is vital for the Conference of DAs to get on board — the group currently does not have a position on raise the age, she added.
Welch said the Administrative Office of the Courts budget and funding shows the state is already short 74 assistant district attorneys, and she is short seven in her counties.
“We are drowning,” she said.
New Rep. Marcia Morey  (D-Durham), who is a former judge and honorary co-sponsor of HB280, said that while she appreciated Welch’s concerns, many other district attorneys she’s spoken to wanted to raise the age and implement the policy right the first time around to prevent repeat offenders.
“If you do it right up front, you are going to save the victims, you are going to save time down the road and I think the vast majority of DAs do want this,” she said. “We are the last state in this country to criminalize 16 and 17 year olds.”
One of the committee chairmen, Rep. John Faircloth  (R-Guilford), who was the former chief of police in Salisbury and High Point, urged his peers to think back to a similar situation when they were discussing the Justice Reinvestment Act .
“It has worked as predicted; it has saved money as predicted,” he said.
Juvenile justice, he added, gets in the pocket of every citizen in the state. He said if they can save even one juvenile from becoming a recidivist, “that may be yours that’s coming out of your pocket now.”
“I urge that we be a little brave and that we listen to what we’re trying to accomplish here, and let’s give this bill a chance and then we’ll work out the dollars and cents,” he said. “We are a very strong state in terms of doing things right and it’s time we jump on this train.”
William Lassiter, Deputy Secretary for Juvenile Justice at the Department of Public Safety, said his agency stands ready to take on the additional juveniles, “and I call them juveniles because that’s what it is, that’s who they are.”
He said they’ve already proven they can do it — the budget since 2008 has been cut by $41 million and juvenile crime has reduced over the last 10 years, thanks to the hard work of each legislator’s judicial staff in their districts.
“Fiscal research does an outstanding job of analyzing cost; what they cannot do is analyze the benefits,” Lassiter added. “Every cost-benefit analysis that you guys have commissioned as legislators has shown that this will save the state money, every single one.”
A way to cut costs up front, he said, would be to start with building a 60-bed Youth Development Center, not a 96-bed facility. If they find they need more space later, they can add another 60-bed facility for almost the same cost.
He also pointed out that one of the biggest differences between the juvenile and adult systems is the mental health services offered to teens. Every juvenile that enters the juvenile justice center gets a mental health analysis.
Lassiter said of the juveniles currently in the system, only one does not have a mental health diagnosis, and 82 percent of them have two or more mental health diagnoses.
Rep. William Brawley  (R-Mecklenburg), said he realizes HB280 is less than perfect, but encouraged his peers to pass it anyway.
“Yes, we will be piece-mealing this, but many of the good things that we have done over the last six years have been done over a series of bills,” he said. “We don’t claim to have the entire answer today; what we do have is a vision for what should be and we are beginning the journey to get there, so let’s don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”