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Maybe this year: Juvenile justice reformers’ hopes high for ‘Raise the Age’ bill

Optimism does not come cheaply for veterans of the longstanding effort to broaden the remit of North Carolina’s juvenile justice system to include 16- and 17-year olds accused of all but the most serious crimes. But supporters of a bill filed in the General Assembly March 8 believe that compromises included in this year’s “Raise the Age” legislation have satisfied all the key stakeholders needed to finally push major reform past the finish line.

North Carolina is the only state in the country where all criminal charges against 16- and 17-year olds, even for the most minor offenses, are handled in the adult justice system.

A robust body of empirical evidence, based on the experiences of states that have passed similar legislation, suggest that moving such offenders to the juvenile system would reduce recidivism and in the long term save the state money and improve future economic outcomes for young offenders.

Those benefits, however, will take years to manifest, while expanding the juvenile justice system will impose tens of millions in up-front costs—handling cases in the juvenile justice system is vastly more resource-intensive than handling them in district court. Previous efforts to raise the age consistently ran aground, in no small part due to objections from law enforcement and district attorneys, who complained that previous bills provided no funding to help implement the proposed changes.

Supporters assembled to announce the filing of House Bill 280, titled the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act, say that it addresses these concerns, and they believe the bill will succeed where past efforts have failed. The language of the bill reflects recommendations published in November by the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, which was convened by Chief Justice Mark Martin in 2015 and worked to bring all the major players on board.

This bill is one for the ages

House Bill 280 would expand juvenile court jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year old defendants. In another important compromise intended to win the support of the state’s district attorneys, young offenders accused of Class A through E felonies—violent crimes, essentially—would be automatically transferred to superior court. For those accused of less serious felonies, prosecutors may request that the judge transfer the defendant to superior court, while misdemeanors would be handled exclusively in the juvenile courts. (The bill would not affect traffic violations.)

The NCCALJ’s recommendations noted that of all 16- and 17-year olds convicted of crimes in 2014, only 3.3 percent were convicted of Class A-E felonies, while 16.3 were convicted of lesser felonies. The remaining 80.4 percent were misdemeanor convictions.

Judge Marion Warren, director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Court and a former prosecutor, said at the press conference announcing the bill’s filing that many adults in the state remain held back by the collateral consequences of convictions for offenses that occurred when they were teenagers, and that raising the age for juvenile offenses would help people lead productive lives.

“When you have someone that commits an offense that you see is from the sheer folly of youth, that offense carries with them the rest of their lives,” Warren said. “We put an albatross, a millstone around the neck of our state when we give these people an adult conviction.”

Closing the school-to-prison pipeline

In its report, the NCCALJ made clear that its recommendation was contingent on the legislature providing full funding to implement the changes. Representatives for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association and the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, both of which had opposed previous Raise the Age legislation, emphasized that their support was wholly conditional on the money materializing.

“The previous bills over the last decade or so have pretty much just stricken out ‘16’ and written in ‘18’ and not addressed any of the problems with the current juvenile justice system, and they’ve not provided adequate funding,” said Eddie Caldwell, general counsel for the sheriffs’ association. “The association has never had a position for or against raising the age. The position has been against doing it in ways that would have caused a catastrophe for the system.”

The bill’s projected impact on the state’s finances is still being calculated, but William Lassiter, deputy commissioner for the Department of Public Safety, and a key backer of the bill, said the costs for DPS would run to $53 million by the third year after enactment, but supporters expect a quick payback on that investment.

“We think three years after implementation is when we’re going to see real significant cost savings,” Lassiter said. “There’s an up-front cost, but we believe that up-front cost plays for itself in the long run. So we completely think it’s worth the investment.”

Lassiter cited the experiences of other states that have taken similar steps and two studies on the proposal that were authorized by the General Assembly. One anticipated $7 million a year in direct savings, mostly due to reduced recidivism, and the other, taking a broader view of the proposal’s economic impact, estimated net benefits of $52 million a year.

Other departments besides DPS also expect to incur some increased cost. Peg Dorer, director of the district attorneys’ association, predicted that the state would need just over 100 new assistant district attorneys to handle the increased workload.

In an effort to defray some of the costs, the bill also would require the director of the AOC to establish policies to reduce school-based referrals to the juvenile justice system, sometimes referred to as the “school to prison pipeline,” which account for almost half of the state’s referrals. The NCCALJ’s recommendations contend that such aggressive punishment of routine misbehavior is counterproductive.

On the edge of 16 and 17

The new bill makes several other additions designed to win over support. It would require juvenile court counselors to share with police information about a juvenile’s record, for the limited purpose of helping officers investigating an incident, and would provide victims with more information about the status of a juvenile’s case.

Supporters say they anticipate other benefits from the raising the age besides the economic impact. They note that unlike in the regular criminal justice process, in the juvenile system a defendant’s parent or guardian is made a legal party to the case and judges can require parents to take certain actions. Warren called the bill a “good families bill” that would improve outcomes for juveniles by increasing parental involvement in cases.

The NCCALJ’s recommendations also note that juveniles detained in adult jails face alarmingly high risks of sexual violence and that widely accepted scientific evidence shows that adolescents’ brains are not fully developed, which has led the U.S. Supreme Court to significantly circumscribe the severity of sentences that can be handed down to young offenders.

Most counties already have some measure of diversion programs, either formal or informal, that allow ADAs to offer to drop minor charges against young offenders if they complete community service and avoid further trouble. But policies differ widely by county and the nature of the charges. Rep. Duane Hall, another of the bill’s primary sponsors and an attorney, spoke about teenaged clients who were unable to join the military or quality for financial aid for college because of convictions. But he was optimistic that this session’s effort would become law.

“Absolutely everybody’s gotten on board, and the public overwhelmingly supports this,” Hall said.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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