By Cash Michaels –
As of Sunday, Dec. 1, 16- and 17-year-olds in North Carolina who commit certain low-level, nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors will not automatically be charged as adults, thanks to the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act of 2017. The “Raise-the-Age” law was a bipartisan effort.
Great news for parents
North Carolina was the last state in the nation to change its century-old practice under which many under-18 teens convicted of certain crimes were saddled with adult-level criminal records for the rest of their lives. Their cases will now be heard in juvenile court.
LaToya Powell, a former appellate attorney at the UNC School of Government, explained that in September 2015, Chief Justice Mark Martin convened the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice (NCCALJ) to study North Carolina’s court system and make recommendations to improve it. The commission’s Committee on Criminal Investigation and Adjudication identified “juvenile reinvestment” as a top priority for action.
Research led to broad buy-in
“The Committee developed a raise-the-age proposal with input from a diverse group of stakeholders, including law enforcement officials, prosecutors, juvenile justice representatives, and judges, among others,” said Powell. “That collaboration resulted in the Juvenile Reinvestment Report, which concludes that rehabilitating youthful offenders in juvenile court will reduce crime and save money.”
Citing research on adolescent brain development and recidivism data, the report provides evidence that treatment in the juvenile justice system is far more effective in reducing juvenile crime than incarcerating juveniles in adult facilities. The report concludes that by lowering recidivism, raising the age will improve public safety and produce economic benefits for both the state and juveniles.
Powell noted that juveniles “will no longer carry the burden of a permanent criminal record for youthful offenses (the same conclusion reached by two prior cost-benefit studies completed in 2009 and 2011).”
“Ultimately,” said Powell, “the report recommended that NC raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds for all offenses, except violent felonies and traffic offenses, contingent upon several other provisions designed to address law enforcement concerns.”
The recommendation was the first such proposal to receive broad bipartisan support and the endorsement of the law enforcement community.
Funding appropriated to ensure implementation
State lawmakers appropriated at least $77 million to help fund more district court judges, designated prosecutors and other personnel, as well as juvenile justice programs and facilities in time for the new law when it began this week. All one hundred counties have a Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, which monitors the needs of at-risk youth, and provide resources for rehabilitation services.
The NC Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) is the lead state agency to see that the law is implemented properly across the state, so that young people who commit low-level offenses may avoid being saddled with serious charges that will crush their chances at good educations or career opportunities.
Not all juveniles eligible
Among those excluded from juvenile jurisdiction under the new law will be those transferred to or convicted in superior court, and juveniles who have been emancipated and married.