Monday numbers: A look at juvenile justice in North Carolina, three years into Raise the Age

By: - December 19, 2022 6:00 am

Youth who are at the Insight Juvenile Crisis and Assessment Center spend most of the day in school. They can be of varying grade levels, and they can work together or independently depending on their needs. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Youth at the Juvenile Crisis and Assessment Center in Butner. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Nearly 13,500 teenagers had their crimes adjudicated in the juvenile justice system; under the old model these youths would have pled their cases in adult courts. 

In 2019 North Carolina followed the rest of the country’s lead  and raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction for nonviolent crimes to age 18, meaning many 16- and 17-year old children would be spared punishment in the adult justice system.

Last year, lawmakers raised the “floor” of juvenile jurisdiction from age 6 to 10, so Kindergartners could no longer be sent to juvenile court for, to take an example from the Department of Public Safety website, stealing a candy bar from the checkout aisle.

New state data offer a glimpse into how these policies are playing out, three years into Raise the Age and one year into raising the ‘minimum age’ law.

Legislators and state officials expected the juvenile justice system to grow when Raise the Age went into effect on Dec. 1, 2019. They were right: Kimberly Quintus, the director of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention analysis, research and external affairs, told members of the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee earlier this month that Raise the Age expanded the juvenile justice system by 63%, just one percentage point from officials’ projections.

“Hopefully, we will see that decline over the years as juvenile justice continues to make an impact on 16- and 17-year olds, and the recidivism rate responds accordingly,” Quintus said.

But there’s a flip side to the increase in criminal cases being processed through the juvenile system: More kids were spared from serving time in adult prison. Quintus said there’s been a 79% decline in the number of minors in adult prison each day, on average, over the past few years. In the 2022 fiscal year, on any given day an average of 16 children were incarcerated in adult prisons in North Carolina.

Raise the Age affected 13,499 minors between Dec. 1, 2019 and Nov. 20, 2022. In the past year alone, 5,309 children have been affected, three-quarters of whom are male. The three most common charges in the last year, according to Quintus’ presentation: simple assault, breaking or entering a motor vehicle, and possession of a handgun by a minor.

Those offenses, Quintus said, underscore that teenagers’ brains are still developing. They indicate that the kids that can’t make decisions like an adult.

“You’re testing your boundaries, you’re acting out, you’re seeking where you need to go through the responses of others,” she said. “These offenses reflect a need for additional interventions, additional programming to help with that administrative brain development, so that one can calm down to feel safe and protected enough to make a valid decision, through what we go through in our normal decision-making process.”

The minimum age of juvenile jurisdiction has been raised only for a year. Quintus said 72 children between ages 6 and 10 have been affected in that time frame. Of the 102 criminal offenses those young children committed, more than three-quarters were misdemeanors. Just over a fifth were felonies, Quintus said, the most common of which was breaking or entering a motor vehicle.  

The numbers below provide additional context on the changing juvenile justice landscape in North Carolina. Quintus presented these numbers to the Juvenile Jurisdiction Advisory Committee on Dec. 9, the group’s final meeting. 

For more on how low staffing levels have exacerbated the challenges of serving this influx of young people in juvenile detention centers, see this Policy Watch story from last week.

70 – Percentage of minors impacted by Raise the Age in the past year who are youth of color

76 – Percentage of the 14,241 Raise the Age-related delinquent complaints filed against youth of color: “Youth of color remain over-represented in the juvenile justice system,” Quintus said. “Black youth and youth of two more races receive more complaints per youth than white youth.” 

57 – Percentage of Raise the Age complaints in Year Three that were minor charges

10 – Percentage of Raise the Age complaints in Year Three that were considered violent charges

827 – Number of teens age 16 or 17 whose cases were transferred to adult court: Kids’ cases can be transferred if they are charged with certain crimes.

98 – Percentage of children whose cases were sent to adult court that were automatically transferred because of their charges

– Percentage of children whose cases were transferred to adult court at the discretion of court officials

73 – Number of teenagers under age 16 whose cases were transferred to adult court since the implementation of Raise the Age

190 – Approximate number of beds in the juvenile detention centers when Raise the Age was implemented

337 – Current number of beds in juvenile detention centers

410 – Projected number of beds in juvenile detention centers as of the end of 2023. Quintus said officials estimated they needed 397 beds in the centers; the excess beds allows for flexibility to move children to other facilities if a county-run juvenile jail is experiencing staffing shortages or has to shut down, like Charlotte’s did earlier this month.

11 – Minimum number of laws passed after Raise the Age that directly affect children and their families across North Carolina, indicating legislative interest to build on these reforms and address the root causes of why they are showing up in the justice system

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.