Groundswell of support for “raise the age” proposal could push legislation forward in next session

By: - December 8, 2016 2:26 pm

raisetheage-400This year could finally be the year North Carolina raises the age at which juveniles are prosecuted as adults.

Officials and advocates acknowledge they’ve heard that line before, but they also claim this year really is different. Why? Simply put, it’s the opposition, or rather lack thereof.

Once described by Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood as a 10,000-pound gorilla in the fight to raise the age, the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association has historically been opposed to legislation on the topic but recently changed its stance.

The group even commended the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice, and particularly the juvenile age subcommittee, for its research on the issue, open discussions and willingness to address law enforcement’s “real-world” concerns.

“This process was totally different,” said Sheriff Graham Atkinson, president of the Association. “I would say this is the textbook example of how government agencies and government officials ought to work together.”

The Commission, made up of numerous legal and law enforcement stakeholders, was convened by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the judicial system and make recommendations. There were five committees under the Commission to examine different areas of the judicial system, including Civil Justice and Criminal Investigation and Adjudication.

Committees frequently met with outside stakeholders, including the Sheriffs’ Association, to conduct research and get input on its recommendations.

The full Commission met for the last time last week and committee co-chairs spoke about the recommendations and implementation. Martin said at the meeting that raising the age is the top priority moving forward.

“I will work very hard with the General Assembly and the Governor to try to see this done,” he said. “Over 90 percent of adults in North Carolina believe that the juvenile age is already up to 18. We are not even up with the public in terms of how we’re doing this, so let’s get to work and get that done in the long session.”

A different proposal

North Carolina is one of only two states (New York is the second) in the U.S. that continues to treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal system.

The Commission’s main recommendation is to raise the juvenile jurisdiction from 15 to 17 for all crimes except Class A through E felony offenses and traffic violations. Under that recommendation, 16 and 17 year olds charged with misdemeanor offenses would remain in the juvenile system.

In addition to raising the age, the Committee’s proposal includes 10 other provisions designed to address concerns raised by law enforcement and prosecutors.

All the recommendations are contingent on full funding for the adoption of changes, which has helped gain the support of the Sheriffs’ Association and, to an extent, the Conference of District Attorneys.

“The proposal from your committee is tremendously different from previous proposals to raise the juvenile age,” Atkinson wrote in a letter of support. “Previously, legislation that has been vigorously opposed by the Association merely deleted the number 16 and replaced it with the number 18, did not have a plan for implementation, did not have adequate funding and did not include solutions to the existing problems with the juvenile justice system identified by sheriffs and other law enforcement professionals.”

He said in a phone interview Thursday that the Commission’s proposal is “good for the young people, it’s good for the officers in the field and it’s good for the victims.”

The Conference of District Attorneys said it would support raising the age if the Commission’s proposal gave district attorneys across the state sole authority to decide whether juveniles ages 13 to 17 charged with Class A through E felonies would be prosecuted in adult court, without any judicial review.

The Commission declined to adopt that position because, the draft report states, evidence did not support the request. The report states that the Committee was open to discussing alternative procedures, but exploration of alternatives ceased “when it became clear that further discussion would not be productive.”

Recidivism, resources and revenue

Judge Bill Webb, co-chair of the Criminal Investigation and Adjudication Committee, said he was surprised to learn how much greater the resources are to kids in the juvenile system than the adult criminal system.

He was also surprised to learn that juveniles were not separated from adults in the prison system, leading to a higher rate of recidivism and ultimately costing the state more money in the long haul.

“We’re losing money today because we don’t have sight and sound separation of juveniles,” Webb said.

The Commission’s report states that experts suggest youthful offenders have a higher recidivism rate when prosecuted in the adult criminal system. Unlike the juvenile system, it says, the criminal system lacks the ability to implement the most targeted, juvenile specific, effective interventions for rehabilitation within a framework of parental and community involvement to include mental health, education, and social services participation in the continuum of care.

Martin said those points would only strengthen the justice system. He said raising the age is a matter of fundamental fairness and it’s good policy.

“I started out as a trial judge, so I saw first-hand how our justice system was struggling to help young people and to give them the resources they needed to recover from challenges – challenges of growing up – and to try to help them have another opportunity to be a productive member of society,” he said.

Another big concern opponents of raise the age have had is the cost of implementation, but the lower recidivism rate alone would produce large cost savings for North Carolina.

Statistics specific to the state show that when youthful offenders are prosecuted in the adult system, they recidivate at a rate that is 12.6 percent higher than the overall population.

Reduced recidivism eliminates future costs associated with youth graduating to the adult criminal system and leads to increased lifetime earnings for youth who don’t have the burden of a criminal record – both of which account for much of the estimated cost savings that have been previously associated with raise the age.

In 2009, the Governor’s Crime Commission Juvenile Age Study estimated raising the age would provide North Carolina a net benefit of $7.1 million. A 2011 study estimated cost benefits of more than $52 million.

Additionally, the Commission noted the Division of Juvenile Justice has already produced cost savings of over $44 million through organizational changes and recommends that money be used to pay for raise the age implementation.

In the hands of legislators

With a fundamental shift in support, the only thing standing in the way of North Carolina raising the age is legislators.

Rep. Marilyn Avila, R-Wake, has historically been a champion of raise the age legislation, but is involved in an election recount and may not return to the legislature next year. She did not return an email seeking comment on the topic.

In 2014, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved with overwhelming bipartisan support a bill that would have raised the age of juveniles charged with misdemeanor crimes, but the Senate failed to take it up.

Susanna Birdsong, Policy Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said she didn’t know who would support a bill in Avila’s absence but that a lot of people seemed to be on board.

Without naming any legislators specifically, she said advocates are optimistic for the upcoming session and that they expect something to be introduced sometime in the range of the end of February or March.

“I think removing the opposition of the Sheriffs’ Association is huge and obviously goes a long way with legislators,” Birdsong added. “Removing that obstacle feels much different. … I think that there’s really this groundswell of it’s time to do this.”

Bill Rowe, General Counsel and Deputy Director for Advocacy at the North Carolina Justice Center (the parent organization of NC Policy Watch), agreed and said this is the most hopeful advocates have been in a while for raise the age legislation.

“This session seems like a great opportunity to get something passed, especially with the Chief Justice’s support, (N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts)’s support and the endorsement of the Sheriffs’ Association,” he said.

Martin vowed at the last Commission meeting to do everything he could to get legislation passed, and he encouraged officials, advocates and residents to reach out to their legislators in support of the issue.

He even joked that he had a bet going with former New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman about which of the two states would be first to raise the age.

“He was kind of using us to kind of encourage his fellow New Yorkers to get New York to do the right thing, and now I’m going to use New York,” Martin said. “Let’s get ahead of New York, and let’s get this done in the next session.”

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Melissa Boughton

Melissa Boughton worked as the Courts and Law Reporter at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020.